What Does Comfort Food Have to Do With Infancy?Heather Neal
You know what’s really fun? Finding something to blame our bad eating habits on. Like, “My grandma ate this way and she lived to be 90,” or “Healthy food is too expensive.” Somehow that plate of nachos just tastes better if we can justify why we’re eating it besides “Because I want to.”
This latest excuse is interesting: We eat more comfort food as adults if our first few days of life were stressful. Comfort food meaning a less than stellar choice in terms of health. For most of us, it’s pizza, ice cream, mac and cheese, or something of the like.
Well, you would think if anyone is unstressed it’d be a newborn infant. All they have to do is sleep, drink milk, and get their diaper changed by someone else. I do suppose the whole squeezing out of a tiny opening in the human body could end up being quite stressful. But can the first few days of life really influence something as far out as adult eating preferences?
Apparently. In mice, anyway. A study in Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior compared newborn mice that experience stress in the first few days of life to mice that were in a sound environment. Later they compared their preference for comfort food. Turns out, the stressed out mice turned to comfort food more often than the mice that were lucky enough to experience bliss in early life. The increased preference for comfort food is thought to come from a hormonal stress response, where the mice are eating to relieve anxiety.
While I find this interesting, I don’t know if I personally see the implications of this in terms of preventing obesity. Don’t most people already do whatever they can to make sure their newborn infant is protected, safe, and comfortable? I do think, however, the link between anxiety and comfort food eating plays a big role in our ever-increasing weight as a nation. We’re under more pressure to raise our kids right, to keep our jobs, to excel at everything, and to make everything bigger and better. What’s not to be stressed about? Perhaps mellowing out and using alternative coping mechanisms ought to be our answer to weight loss, instead of de-stressing infants.
I suppose the only other way to combat this early-on predictor of future eating behaviors is to counteract it in the days and years that follow. I don’t know whether my son felt stressed his first few days of life – maybe one day I’ll ask him. But I do know that I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure he grows up to be a happy and healthy adult. I breastfed him exclusively until he was 6 months old. I introduced veggies as his first food: sweet potatoes and avocados were his favorite. I try to serve him a variety of flavors and tastes, and continue offering them to him even if he doesn’t like them. I try to eat well in front of him, and show him it’s fun to exercise. Whether this will pay off in a few years, or many years, remains to be seen. Let’s hope so!