An anxiety study was done to see if 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.
In this study, the goal was to verify 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. A litter of rats were used in this study, these were subjected to a protocol of reduced nesting material or standard care, in the first days of life. Once the rats reached adulthood behavioral anxiety and stress reaction were measured and the preference for comfort food was measured over four days. “Comfort food” are known as the foods eaten in response to emotional stress and are suggested to contribute to the obesity epidemic. Hormonal responses to chronic stress in adulthood seem to play a role in the increased preference for this type of food, especially in women.
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.
This is the first study to demonstrate that comfort food preference could be enhanced by such an early stress exposure”, says lead researcher Tania Machado. 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). Future studies in this area may have implications for primary care on childhood nutrition in vulnerable populations (e.g. low birth weight or children with a history of neonatal adversities).