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Early Stress Tied to "Comfort Food" Cravings in Adulthood

Update Date: Jul 30, 2013 02:39 PM EDT

Stress in the first few days of life can forever affect eating behavior, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that exposure to stress early in life increases stress responses, anxiety and consumption of "comfort" foods in adulthood. "Comfort foods" are foods eaten in response to emotional stress, and are believed to contribute to the growing obesity epidemic.

The findings revealed that hormonal responses to chronic stress in adulthood seem to play a role in the increased preference for junk food.  Previous studies revealed that this is especially true in women.

Researchers in the study wanted to see if exposure to stress in early life could also lead to increased consumption of comfort food in adulthood. Researchers also wanted to see if increased anxiety and stress responses were persistently affected by adversity in early life.

For the latest study, researchers subjected baby rats in the "early-life stress" group to a protocol of reduced nesting material in the first days of life.  Researchers then measured the rats' behavior anxiety, stress reaction and preference for comfort food in adulthood. 

The findings revealed that rats the "early-life stress" group had increased anxiety, hormonal response to stress and preference for comfort food in adulthood. Researchers found that this group of rats still preferred comfort food even after a period of chronic exposure.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that comfort food preference could be enhanced by such an early stress exposure," lead researcher Tania Machado said in a news release.

Researchers say the findings suggest that the anxiety and altered food preferences seen in these rats exposed to neonatal adversity is related to the described changes in the hormonal response to stress.  Therefore, a greater consumption of "comfort food" may serve as a way to alleviate anxiety symptoms in rats exposed to stress in early life.

The findings are presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) in New Orleans. 

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