Higher Stress Hinders Healthy Eating

A study in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that a tough economy means parents often neglect nutrition both for their teens and themselves.

“Our work underlined the need to take into account the competing pressures that so many families… are experiencing,” said lead researcher Dr. Katherine Bauer. “There’s a great need to help parents find realistic and sustainable ways to feed their families more healthfully while taking into consideration all of the stresses on parents these days.”

First, let’s go to the drawing board to see why this study was so significant.

  • It was one of the first to look at how dads and not just moms deal with the tough economy. In other words, it accounted for how both parents deal.
  • It specifically focuses on parents with adolescents.
  • Most of the almost 4,000 parents surveyed were lower economic and from a racial or ethnic minority.
  • Only 64% of dads and 46% of moms surveyed worked full-time.

The survey gathered some interesting findings. For instance, full-time employed moms here cooked fewer meals and prepared less food for their families. They were more likely to swing by McDonald’s or another fast-food place instead.

These working moms also were less likely to encourage their teens to eat their veggies.

On the other hand, full-time dads spent way less time preparing food than part-time and non-working dads.

But praise where praise is due: regardless of whether they worked, moms spent more time prepping than dads, period. Score one for mom.

Now, here’s the study take-home, regardless of gender and even whether you have adolescents: higher stress levels hinder healthy eating.

To give you just one example from this study, high stress levels meant parents had fewer family meals than parents with low stress levels. And that ultimately affects everyone’s health.

If you’ve followed science at all over the past few years, you’ll know stress does more than interfere with healthy eating. For one, it elevates cortisol levels, which means you store fat more easily. Stress also makes you miserable, unhappy, and awful to be around.

Short answer: nothing good comes from chronic stress. No kidding.

But back to our study, which shows stress hinders healthy eating. Dr. Bauer provided suggestions about how even the most stressed-out parents could make mealtime more healthy. She suggests, for instance, that both parents help plan and prepare meals. Also get your teens involved.

Listen, I don’t have any groundbreaking epiphanies to add here. Regardless of whether you’re a two-job single mom or have a supportive husband to help you out, eating well requires effort. And stress often hinders those efforts.

I mean, listing ways to finding your bliss doesn’t exactly help when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic and freaking out about what your family will eat during dinner. Stress has a nasty way of sneaking up on us when we think we’ve got things under control.

A recent blog I wrote discussed a study that showed families who eat together have healthier kids. I then offered seven strategies to make this happen more often.

I also wrote a recent blog that provides 10 simple strategies to  “sneak” in more vegetables and fruits.

Every little bit helps. I’m not going to pretend eating healthy is easy, but I know that ultimately it’s worth it for you and for the values your teens will hopefully someday adapt into their own lives.

The key is to make healthy meals a priority in your life and then take the necessary actions to make it happen for your family. I don’t have any tried-and-true formula. You’ve got to figure out what works for your family.

Maybe it means running by your supermarket after work for a rotisserie chicken and some steamed vegetables. Or perhaps your kids don’t have soccer practice certain afternoons and can help prepare dinner those evenings. Assign chores and make it fun.

The most important thing is to spend time with your family. And if you can combine that with a healthy meal, you’ve aced this exam.