Babies born to mothers, who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breast-feeding are more open to a wide range of flavors, say researchers in Philadelphia. Babies, who follow their mother’s diet after weaning, carry those preferences into adulthood.
There appears to be crucial periods in the womb and in infancy and toddlerhood in which the child’s preferences are formed that have life-long effect. Changing food preferences once they are formed is considerably more difficult, though it can be done.
“The preferences [children] form during the first years of life actually predict what they’ll eat later,” said Julie Mennella, a bio psychologist and researcher at the non-profit Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Parents who feed their children a diet high in processed, refined foods, appear to be setting up their children for a lifetime of a preference for a narrow range of flavors found in junk foods, leading to obesity and other health problems.
The Monell researchers believe they have discovered that there are several sensitive periods when a child develops taste preferences. One of them is the first three months of age. What the mother eats while pregnant or breast-feeding is very important, they say. Flavors infants are exposed to in utero and from the mother’s milk signal the things that will be in their diet later in life.
The mother who eats a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and other healthy whole foods during pregnancy and into her baby’s toddlerhood is setting the taste trajectory of her child, who will be more likely to eat healthily as an adult, partly because the child learns what flavors are acceptable and also because he develops an emotional bond to those flavors. Babies learn through repeated exposure, say the researchers, “so, the more varied the diet, the more likely they’ll be to accept a novel food.”
Similarly, exposure to a maternal junk food diet means that children will have a preference for these same foods in the future. Researchers at FoodPlus research center at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, found that junk food exposure develops a “reward pathway” in the brain that is less sensitive when the mother eats junk food while pregnant.
Jessica R. Gugusheff, the lead author of the study, wrote, “When someone is addicted to drugs they become less sensitive to the effects of that drug, so they have to increase the dose to get the same high. In a similar way, by having a desensitized reward pathway, offspring exposed to junk food before birth have to eat more junk food to get the same good feelings.”
These studies reveal that infant formula is not the best for infants because the flavors never change, narrowing the infants taste preferences. But education of mothers and prospective mothers is also important to helping them make healthy choices for themselves during pregnancy as well as for their small children.
“…The idea that [pregnant] women, because of their special condition, may let the appetite run riot, is a mistake based on custom, but not on sound sense. The appetite of women in this condition may be variable, fitful, and difficult to gratify; and custom allows her to have anything she may fancy, without consulting reason as to whether such food can supply nutrition for her body and for the growth of her child. The food should be nutritious, but should not be of an exciting quality. Custom says that if she wants flesh meats, pickles, spiced food, or mince pies, let her have them; appetite alone is to be consulted. This is a great mistake, and does much harm. The harm cannot be estimated. If ever there is need of simplicity of diet and special care as to the quality of food eaten, it is in this important period. Counsels on Diet and Foods, page 220