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New research shows women who have been under psychological pressure burn fewer calories and less fat after a high-fat meal.Matthew Ennis/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you soothe your stress with a burger and fries, mac and cheese or a tub of ice cream, you might want to rethink your coping strategy.

According to researchers from The Ohio State University, stress combined with a high-fat, caloric meal is a double whammy for your waistline, at least for women. The unfavourable combo can slow your metabolism – the speed at which your body burns calories – and make you hold onto fat.

It's not news that stress can lead to weight gain by prompting overeating. Ongoing stress can zap our willpower to make healthy food choices (e.g., hitting the drive-through takes less effort than preparing a home-cooked meal), trigger emotional eating and drive up cortisol, a stress hormone that increases appetite.

What's news, though, is that stress-related weight gain is not just about excess calories consumed. It appears stress can alter how your body responds to those calories.

For the study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers asked 58 women, average age 53, about the previous day's stressors. They then ate a meal of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits and gravy delivering 930 calories and 60 grams of fat (roughly the calorie and fat equivalent of a fast-food double burger and fries). Metabolic measurements and blood samples were taken before and at intervals for seven hours after the meal.

Women who reported one or more stressful events the previous day – e.g., an argument with a co-worker or spouse, work-related pressure, trouble with children – burned 104 fewer calories in the seven hours after the meal compared with women who weren't stressed. That may not sound like much but, according the researchers, it's a difference that would add up to nearly 11 pounds over a year.

There's more. Women who complained of prior-day stress also burned less fat after eating compared with participants who reported no stressors. They also had higher levels of insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage.

It's unknown if these results would apply to men, who tend to have more muscle than women and, therefore, higher metabolic rates.

It's also not known if eating a low-fat meal when feeling stressed would have the same consequences. Most people don't reach for chicken breast and steamed vegetables when they're stressed out, rather they seek out high-fat comfort foods. It might not be a double cheeseburger and fries. Three small scoops (one-half cup each) of Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road ice cream also delivers 930 calories and 60 grams of fat.

These findings provide decent motivation to keep healthy foods close by when under stress. But eating the right foods can do more than help manage your waistline. Your body's stress response – its ability to deal with stress – relies on certain nutrients to work properly.

Focus on high fibre, carbs

Studies show that when stress-prone individuals are subjected to stress, they fare better eating a high carbohydrate diet versus high protein. Eating more carbs increased serotonin (a brain chemical that calms and relaxes), reduced stress hormones, improved mental performance and enhanced mood. When under stress, make whole-grain foods, legumes, fruits and vegetables the focus of your meals rather than meat and poultry. High in fibre, these foods also help keep your appetite in check and blood sugar stable.

Boost B vitamins

When faced with stress, the body requires B vitamins to mobilize stored energy and send it to the bloodstream for immediate fuel. Vitamin B6 may also ease psychological stress since it's used to make serotonin. The best sources of B vitamins include enriched breakfast cereals, wheat germ, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark-green vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry, milk and yogurt. You'll also find B6 in avocados, baked potatoes and bananas.

Consider a multivitamin or B complex

Chronically stressed people have been found to have lower levels of nutrients in their body and the extent of these deficiencies was related to the severity and duration of stress. Taking a multivitamin has been shown to reduce perceived stress, anxiety and fatigue in study participants. Researchers speculate B vitamins are responsible.

Get more vitamin C

This nutrient is concentrated in the adrenal glands, where it is used to make stress hormones. Citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi fruit, cantaloupe, broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes are all good sources of vitamin C. Multivitamins, B complex supplements and anti-stress vitamins also supply vitamin C.

Cut caffeine

If you have high blood pressure, the combination of stress and caffeine can lead to a sharper rise in stress hormones and blood pressure compared with people with normal blood pressure. Switch to decaffeinated coffee, weakly brewed tea or herbal tea.

Limit alcoholic beverages

Despite the fact that many people drink to relieve stress, alcohol actually triggers the release of stress hormones. It's also dehydrating and interferes with sleep, two factors that can impair physical and mental performance. If you must drink during stressful periods, limit yourself to one drink per day.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct;