Infants who experience high levels of stress early in life are far more likely to turn to high-fat, sugar-rich diets that put them at greater risk for obesity later in life, new research shows.
The study, presented at a meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in New Orleans this week, suggests that exposure to stress in the first few days of life has an impact on the body’s biological responses to stress, anxiety, and the consumption of palatable "comfort foods" in adulthood.
"Comfort foods" — defined as the foods eaten in response to emotional stress — are a key contributor to the obesity epidemic, said the researchers, noting hormonal responses to chronic may play a role in the increased preference for this type of food, especially in women.
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For the new study, researchers subjected laboratory rats to increased stress early in life and then compared their eating habits to rats subjected to less stress in the first days of life. The results showed the stressed rates displayed a marked preference for comfort food later in life.
"To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that comfort food preference could be enhanced by such an early stress exposure," said 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)."
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