Emotional eating, or eating to satisfy an emotionally-based craving, is strongly linked to our nation’s rising obesity rate, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). New research suggests that a foundation for emotional eating may begin to form very early in life.
A new study, to be presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), has linked stress exposure in early infancy to increased anxiety and cravings for ‘comfort foods’ later in life.
Comfort foods are foods eaten based on an emotional stress response, and are usually foods high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat. According to the study, adult hormonal responses to chronic stress were linked to heightened cravings for these foods.
Lead researcher, Tania Diniz Machado, and her research team performed an experiment that consisted of reducing the nesting material available to litters of baby rats in the first few days of their lives. Litters used as a control group were given standard nesting materials.
Once the rats from both groups reached adulthood, their stress and anxiety reactions were measured. The research team also analyzed the rats’ preference for comfort foods over four days. This analysis was performed by a computerized system which measured the rats’ average food intake approximately every second.
Study results showed that the rats that had been exposed to reduced nesting materials in infancy displayed a heightened hormonal response to stress, as well as a greater inclination to eat comfort foods. Even after these rats had been exposed to comfort foods for a period of time, their preference for them did not diminish.
Dr. Machado writes, “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).”
The outcomes of this study can be extrapolated in several ways. For new mothers, the knowledge that infant stress may lead to increased adult stress and emotional intake of comfort foods indicates the benefit of keeping outside stressors low for the new baby, if they can be controlled. For example, keeping commotion at a minimum whenever possible, or keeping loud background noise, such as a blaring television, away from the infant, could prove beneficial.
For adults who have a habit of emotional eating, recognizing that these urges may come from early stress may help them get to the root of their feelings, and recognize that these cravings have been environmentally established. In some individuals, this knowledge may help them resist these cravings, as understanding may aid in gaining greater self-control.
Obesity levels in this country are frighteningly high; if studies such as this one help us to understand the foundations for patterns such as emotional eating, this knowledge may, in some cases, help us break these cycles.