Researchers have found that rats exposed to heightened levels of stress during their first few days of life are more likely to be prone to anxiety and stress in later life, and prefer to consume sugary and high-fat foods.

The study was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB).

Adult rats that experienced stressful neonatal environments are more likely to feel stressed and seek "comfort" foods throughout adulthood.

"Comfort foods" are consumed in response to stress or anxiety, they are believed to play a huge role in the ever-growing obesity pandemic.

A study published in the Journal of Marketing, by Brian Wansink, revealed that people feeling sad tend to eat more of less-healthy comfort foods than when they feel happy.

The study aimed to find out whether very early exposure to stress could influence eating habits later in life. In order to test this, the researchers made a litter of rats subject to either a protocol of reduced nesting material (Early-Life Stress) or standard care (Controls) when they were born.

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People seek comfort foods when they are
feeling down or stressed.

When the rats became adults the researchers measured their levels of stress and anxiety, and using a computerized system they also measured preference for comfort foods.

The study showed that the rats that experienced "Early-Life Stress" were much more likely to suffer from anxiety in adulthood and have a preference for comfort foods.

According to the lead researcher of the study, Tania Machado:

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that comfort food preference could be enhanced by such an early stress exposure"

The changes in anxiety and food preferences among rats that were exposed to neonatal stress are likely due to changes in hormonal responses to stress. The consumption of "comfort foods" among neonatally stressed rats occurs as a means of alleviating feelings of anxiety.

Further research is necessary to understand the implications that this finding might have for primary care on children in vulnerable populations.