It is largely unknown whether and how whole food diets influence psychological stress and stress system responsiveness. To better understand the effects of whole diets on stress system responsiveness, we examined randomized control trial effects of a whole food diet based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) on cortisol responsiveness. A randomized, double-blind, controlled 8-week intervention was conducted in overweight and obese women to examine differentiated effects between two diet intervention groups: one based on the 2010 DGA and the other one based on a typical American diet (TAD). During a test week that occurred at baseline and again after 8 weeks of the intervention, we assessed salivary cortisol collected at 14 selected times across the day, including upon awakening, at bedtime, and during a test visit, and administered a standardized social stress task (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST). There were no statistical differences between the diet groups in salivary cortisol at baseline or after 8 weeks. However, when considering differences in dietary carbohydrate, but not fat or protein, from the pre-intervention (habitual) to the intervention period, there was a significant (P
= 0.0001) interaction between diet group, intervention week, saliva sample, and level of intervention-based change in carbohydrate consumption. This interaction was reflected primarily by an 8-week reduction in salivary cortisol during a period just prior to (log Δ −0.35 ± 0.12 nmol/L) and 30 (log Δ −0.49 ± 0.12 nmol/L), 60 (log Δ −0.50 ± 0.13 nmol/L), 90 (log Δ −0.51 ± 0.13 nmol/L), and 120 (log Δ −0.4476 ± 0.1231 nmol/L) min after the TSST in the DGA group having the highest increase (90th percentile) in carbohydrate consumption. In support of this finding, we also found significant (P
< 0.05) and inverse linear associations between dietary carbohydrate and log salivary cortisol, with the strongest negative association (β: −0.004 ± 0.0015, P
= 0.009) occurring at 30 min post-TSST, but only in the DGA group and at week 9 of the intervention. Together, increasing dietary carbohydrate as part of a DGA-based diet may reduce circulating cortisol and dampen psychological stress-related cortisol responsiveness.
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