Who do you think enjoys better health: a couch potato who lives on a diet of pizza and chocolate but doesn’t have a care in the world, or a constantly stressed workaholic who prides herself on getting most of her groceries from the produce aisle?
Since both stress and a poor diet have been shown to contribute to poor physical health in individuals, both of these people mentioned above definitely aren’t as healthy as they could be — but for different reasons. We did all of the research for you regarding how stress and a poor diet impact your skin, heart, stomach, energy levels, immune system, muscles, bones, and weight. Here’s how they break down throughout your body.
Poor Diet: Have you ever woken up from a night of drinking sugary cocktails and binging on nachos only to notice a breakout of new pimples on your formerly clear skin? This is no coincidence. What you eat can make or break the health — and appearance — of your skin.
Eating too many foods with a high glycemic index — like white bread, packaged cereal and chips — typically causes inflammation that could lead to breakouts. And consuming too much sugar over time can result in the breakdown of your skin’s collagen and elastin, which makes your skin look dull and could lead to wrinkles. On the flipside, loading up on omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish like salmon) can remedy dry skin, and eating enough omega-6 fatty acids (found in nuts) is essential for promoting healthy skin growth.
Stress: Chronic stress causes a chemical response in your body that makes your skin more sensitive and reactive. Stress can also cause breakouts. Cortisol, the stress hormone, tells the glands in your skin to produce more oil, and oily skin is more prone to acne. If you already have skin problems like psoriasis, rosacea or eczema, chronic stress can make these problems worse and cause flare-ups. But meditating and using other stress management techniques can improve the appearance and health of your skin.
Poor Diet: A 2017 study found that almost half of the deaths caused by heart disease and stroke in the American population that year were linked to a poor diet. The study found that a large amount of Americans who died from heart disease were consuming a diet high in processed meats and sugary drinks and low in whole grains. A large portion of Americans who died of stroke were consuming too much sodium while not eating enough fruits and veggies. Clearly, having a consistently poor diet can do serious (even fatal) damage to your heart.
Stress: Chronic stress can increase blood pressure and even result in hypertension, or chronically high blood pressure, which puts you at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Constant stress can also contribute to higher cholesterol, another risk factor for developing heart disease. People who are always stressed also often turn to unhealthy habits to cope, like frequent binge drinking or smoking. Both of these habits further increase blood pressure and could even damage the walls of your arteries.
Poor Diet: Eating a diet high in processed foods, unhealthy fats and refined grains and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can lead to serious digestive problems and poor gut health. If you’re not getting enough antioxidants — found in many fruits, veggies, and healthy nuts — your body won’t have the ability to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals attack your body’s cells that, among other things, produce enzymes that play a key role in helping you digest food, leading you to struggle with serious indigestion.
If you’re constantly constipated, you’re likely not eating enough fiber-packed fruits, veggies, and whole grains. More seriously, eating too much high-fat, high-cholesterol foods has been associated with an increased risk for developing gallstones — very painful, hardened deposits of digestive fluids in the gallbladder.
Stress: It isn’t unusual for people who are experiencing a lot of stress to complain about feeling sick to their stomachs. Considering the troubling effect that stress has on the digestive system, this common complaint isn’t surprising. During episodes of stress, digestion is suppressed. When stress dissipates, digestive activity increases. During periods of chronic stress, when your digestive system isn’t working properly, you’ll likely experience indigestion, which can lead to uncomfortable things like diarrhea and constipation.
Chronic stress can also cause painful inflammation of the gastrointestinal system. It can make diseases like stomach ulcers, celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease worse. The bottom line is that chronic stress is a big no-no when it comes to maintaining an efficient digestive system and a happy, healthy gut.
Your Energy Levels
Poor Diet: Eating a diet high in sugary foods — like cake, packaged snack foods, and soda — could be the reason that you’re constantly feeling tired even though you’re getting enough sleep. When your body is relying on sugar as its primary source of fuel, as is usually the case in people with diets high in sugar, you’ll likely experience quick spikes in energy followed by rapid drops. This is why many people crash an hour or so after consuming popular energy drinks. Fueling your body with complex carbs with a low glycemic index (like oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and sweet potatoes) will help you maintain an even flow of energy and help you avoid crashing.
Stress: Cortisol is naturally present in our bodies at its highest levels in the morning and gradually dips throughout the day until it reaches its low point at bedtime. But chronic stress can keep your body on constant alert, preventing cortisol levels from decreasing at night. Having high cortisol levels at night can disrupt your shut-eye and make it harder for you to fall asleep. And if you’re not getting restful, deep slumber, your energy levels will naturally dip when you experience chronic stress.
Your Immune System
Poor Diet: If you’re not getting a variety of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet (eat the rainbow, folks), you might be weakening your immune system. To have a healthy, disease-fighting immune system, you need to be getting enough essential vitamins and minerals in your diet. Specifically, probiotics, beta-glucans, catechins, soluble fiber and vitamins C and E help boost your immune system. Foods rich in Vitamin C include fruits like oranges, guava, kiwi and strawberries and veggies like red and green peppers, broccoli and kale.
If you’re not getting enough soluble fiber in your diet, you could be wreaking havoc on your immune system and missing out on awesome anti-inflammatory benefits. Up your intake of soluble fiber by adding cucumbers, celery, nuts and beans to your diet. Immune system-boosting probiotics are mainly found in yogurt. And catechins are rich in antioxidants that also help improve your body’s immune response, so add catechins to your diet by increasing your intake of fruits like apples, peaches, and blackberries and by eating more legumes like fava beans.
Stress: Chronic stress can make you more likely to get sick by suppressing your immune system. When you’re stressed, your brain signals to your body to release cortisol. If you’re chronically stressed and your body is constantly flooded with cortisol, you will get sick easier because your white blood cell count will drop, your likelihood of developing tumors will increase and you’ll also become more vulnerable to infection and tissue damage. Some experts claim that stress is responsible for up to 90 percent of the diseases and illnesses that you could develop. Don’t let this stress you out.
Your Muscles And Bones
Poor Diet: If you’re not eating enough fruits, veggies and dairy products daily, you’re likely not getting enough key vitamins and minerals that help support muscle growth and bone strength. Consuming an adequate amount of calcium (found in dairy products and leafy greens) and vitamin D is essential for keeping bones and muscles strong and slowing the pace of bone density loss that starts to happen as you get older.
Another important vitamin for maintaining bone and muscle strength is zinc — found in red meat, seafood, eggs, milk, legumes, and whole grains. Zinc speeds up muscle-building chemical reactions in your body. If you’re not getting enough zinc in your diet, likely, you won’t experience as much hypertrophy (muscle growth) no matter how many times a week you hit the gym — and your booty goals will suffer.
Stress: If you’re experiencing chronic stress — which is prolonged stress caused by “unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time” — you’re likely prone to tension headaches and migraines. Your body responds to stress by tensing up your muscles, which is its way of protecting itself against injury and pain. During regular stress, your body releases muscle tension when the stress passes, but if you’re experiencing chronic stress, your body is likely in a constant state of guardedness and, therefore, your muscles are always tense and never fully relaxing. This tendency often leads to painful strains in the shoulder, neck and head areas as well, and it could even lead to injury over time.
Poor Diet: You’ve likely heard that when it comes to weight loss, it’s 75 percent eating healthy and 25 percent moving regularly. But maintaining a healthy weight isn’t just about consuming an equal amount of calories to what your body burns off — the quality of the calories that you consume is just as important.
Choosing to eat whole grains — whole wheat, brown rice, and barley — instead of refined grains like white bread, white-flour pasta and pastries will help you avoid those nasty blood sugar spikes that lead you to feel hungrier later in the day, thus making it easier for you to resist overeating. A poor diet — low in fruits, veggies, and whole grains and high in processed foods, refined grains and sugary drinks — is likely to cause weight gain over time.
Stress: You’re feeling particularly stressed at work, so you scoop a handful of candies out of the office candy jar. Does this sound familiar? Not surprisingly, chronic stress has been shown to increase the feeling of hunger. This happens because when you feel stressed, your body thinks that you’re using extra calories to deal with that stress (something that happened a lot to our ancestors when they were running from giant predators but is less likely to happen to us nowadays). So it signals to the brain that you need to replenish those calories, making you reach for that sugary doughnut.
Additionally, the cortisol that rises in your body during periods of stress can increase the levels of insulin in your body, which makes your blood sugar drop and makes you crave sugary, fatty foods that often leads to weight gain.
Although we can say with full confidence that both a chronic unhealthy diet and chronic stress can seriously wreck your health, it’s hard to determine which is worse for us. It’s important to emphasize, however, that watching what you eat is typically easier than controlling how much you stress. And eating a healthier diet could even help reduce your stress levels. So if you’re looking to up your health game, we suggest focusing on improving your diet first and then give that meditation routine a go.