Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I just read that stress can cancel out the health effects of eating "good" oils, like olive oil. If that's true, why should I even bother trying to eat better?

Dear Reader: We knew when this study began making news last year that health care providers were in for some challenging conversations about diet. And while your reasoning does follow a kind of logic, we hope that a deeper dive into the facts can help add some perspective.

The study in question looked at the physical effects of two different types of fat on 58 women. Both groups ate a breakfast of eggs, biscuits with gravy, and turkey sausage. The food for one group was prepared with palm oil, which is high in saturated fats. The food for the second group was prepared with high oleic sunflower oil, which is considered to be one of the "good" fats. Each breakfast clocked in at a hefty 930 calories, with 60 grams of fat.

Researchers then measured the levels of inflammation markers in the blood of both groups of women. Inflammation is an immune response by the body to repair damage, and to protect it from infection and unfriendly organisms. However, when there is nothing to neutralize, the over-vigilant immune system can wind up doing harm to the body's own tissues. For example, chronic inflammation is a common denominator in conditions as diverse as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

The unexpected result of this particular study wasn't that the "bad fats" group had measurably higher blood levels of inflammation markers than the "good fats" group. That was pretty much expected. What surprised the researchers was that women in the "good fats" group who experienced significant stress in the previous 24 hours had blood test results similar to those in the "bad fats" group.

The study results are certainly interesting and add an intriguing new wrinkle to our understanding of the interplay of stress and diet. But it's important to note certain limitations. First, the sample size is quite small and the scope of the study covers a single meal. Also, that meal is high in both fat and calories. It would be instructive to see the results of a similar study that includes a group eating a healthful meal of lean proteins and a variety of vegetables. Take it a step further and see how vegetarians and vegans fare.

But back to your question, which we suspect is more exasperated than serious. Our answer is yes, please do stick to a healthful way of eating. Although the metrics of diet -- calorie counts, serving size, grams and types of fat and carbs -- play out on a daily basis, the truth is we're looking at years and decades. The long haul.

When it comes to eating habits that stretch over a lifetime, you're quite likely to reap benefits from choosing the fresh peach more often than the peach cobbler. And a deliberate timeout every day for a few moments of calm and quiet, along with a bit of deep breathing (how about right now?), can also do a world of good.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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