Less Stress Means Healthier Eating


Compelling evidence reveals that high levels of stress are linked with low income, weight gain, and obesity. Notwithstanding that, research has also drawn links between socio-economic situations and associated stress levels. For instance, those living with chronic life stress, not an uncommon trope among those with low incomes, have a higher preference for energy-dense food, such as high-fat foods and fast foods.

Despite a depth of research on the subject, it is still not known whether intervention-based reduction in stress serves as a potential mediator of intervention effects on fast food intake. Investigating this phenomenon, in its ability to help reduce fat and fast food intake in low-income overweight or obese mothers of young children is key in finding appropriately targeted interventions to promote good maternal and child health.

Image 1: Factors relating to stress. 

The researchers of this study carried out a randomised, controlled community-based lifestyle behaviour intervention (which ran for 16 weeks) for low income overweight or obese mothers of young children. The women who participated were randomly selected while waiting for an appointment with a government funded nutrition program called WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). The 16-week intervention aimed at preventing weight gain in the target population through the promotion of stress management, healthy eating, and physical activity.

The participants were assigned intervention video DVDs to watch (20mins/video, total of 10 videos: 4 on stress management, 5 on healthy eating, and 1 on physical activity) and joined a peer support group teleconference (30mins/session, total of 10) every week for 4 weeks (weeks 1-4) and then every other week (weeks 6-16). To connect with the participants, the videos featured 4 overweight or obese WIC mothers of young children with their family members.

They provided testimonies and displayed helpful and practical tips to overcoming daily challenges to better manage stress (e.g., taking deep breaths, counting to 10, and using positive talk), eat healthier (e.g., planning healthy meals and cooking healthy meals at home with a limited budget), and be more physically active (e.g., playing tag with young children outdoors and marching in place while watching TV). The peer support group teleconferences were led by peer educators and WIC dietitians who were trained in motivational interviewing. The comparison group received reading materials consisting of general information about stress management, healthy eating, and physical activity.

Stress was measured using a validated Perceived Stress Scale (9 items), which is a survey that measures how stressful one would say a situation was, which they encountered during the past month in their life. Responses ranged from 1 (rarely or never) to 4 (usually or always). The total stress score was the average of the 9 items, with a higher score meaning higher stress.

             Image 2: Example of a standard Perceived Stress Scale.

The results of the study showed that the intervention significantly reduced stress. When controlling for the intervention (meaning that this particular variable, i.e. intervention in this case, is kept the same or nearly the same when comparing other variables, i.e. stress and fat and fast food intake), higher stress was significantly associated with higher fat intake and higher fast food intake. When controlling for stress, the intervention had no effects on fat or fast food intake. When assessing the potential role of stress as a mediator, indirect effects of the intervention on fat and fast food intakes through stress were significant and negative. Meaning that through stress as a mediator, the intervention did significantly reduce fat and fast food intake.

The current study develops on existing literature and examines the direct association between stress and dietary intake. In the context of stress reduction helping account for intervention effects on fat or fast food intake, current findings might have important clinical implications. As in, they highlight the potential for intervention in women with high stress levels, and could encourage stress management, and improve maternal and child health outcomes. The results of the study highlight the need to include stress management into lifestyle intervention studies aimed to reduce fat and fat food intakes for the target population.

Original Source: Chang, MW., Brown, R., and Wegener, DT. (2020) “Perceived Stress Can Mediate the Associations between a Lifestyle Intervention and Fat and Fast Food Intakes” Nutrients. 12(12): 3606. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12123606

Original link: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/12/3606

Image Sources:

Image 1: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-all-stress-infographic-factors-symptoms-treatment-vector-flat-design-image74622340

Image 2: https://lisakenny91.wixsite.com/stressfreenurses/perceived-stress-scale

Featured Image: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Edited by Malavika Ramanand

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