In this anxiety study, researchers aimed at verifying if an exposure to stress very early during development could also lead to increased consumption of comfort food in adult life, and if increased anxiety and stress responses were persistently affected by early adversity.
For this anxiety study litters of rats were subjected to a protocol of reduced nesting material (early-life stress) or standard care (controls), in the first days of life. In adulthood, behavioral anxiety and stress reaction were measured. Preference for comfort food was measured over four days in a computerized system.
The anxiety study results showed that early-life stress increased adulthood anxiety, increased the hormonal response to stress (corticosterone) and increased the preference for comfort foods, even after a period of chronic exposure to this type of food. The anxiety and altered food preferences seen in these rats exposed to neonatal adversity can be related to the described changes in the hormonal response to stress. Therefore, in neonatally stressed rats, a greater consumption of “comfort foods” is possibly used as a way to alleviate anxiety symptoms (self-medication).
Lead researcher Tania Machado states that this is the first anxiety study that actually shows that comfort food preference could be enhanced by such an early stress exposure. Future studies, such as this anxiety study, in this area may have implications for primary care on childhood nutrition some populations (e.g. low birth weight or children with a history of neonatal adversities).