Weaning Kids From Junk Food: Start Before They’re Born

A study recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition infers that mothers who eat a great deal of junk food during pregnancy and lactation, may predispose their children to prefer junk food to healthy food when they are weaned.

As reported by CBS News, the results of the study, conducted on rats, suggest that a heightened taste for junk food may be influenced in utero and while breastfeeding from a mother who eats a diet rich in fat, sugar and empty calories.

The researchers who conducted the study, Stephanie Bayol, Ph.D., and professor Neil Stickland, Ph.D., of London’s Royal Veterinary College found that when mother rats were fed junk food diets which included biscuits, marshmallows, cheese, jam, doughnuts, chocolate chip muffins, pancakes, potato chips, caramel and chocolate, their offspring, when weaned preferred these foods to regular rat chow.

Of course, the control group of baby rats whose mothers had been fed a diet of nothing bat rat chow also preferred the junk food diet (who wouldn’t–what the heck is rat chow, anyway–tasteless processed nuggets of crap?), but apparently, the junk food babies preferred to the point that they showed an exaggerated taste for it.

This exaggerated taste for junk food led to the study group of baby rats gaining more weight and showing a market lack of interest in the healthier rat chow.

The doctors concluded that it was even more important than ever for pregnant and lactating women to eat as healthily as possible and to not use the excuse that they are “eating for two” to gorge on unhealthy foods.

What do I think about all of this?

Well, in my experience, (and according to some other studies on the subject) infant food preferences are in some part shaped by their mother’s diets during pregnancy and lactation. This does make sense–because as mothers and doctors have known for generations, flavors from her diet come through the breastmilk, so it is only logical that a child will have a preference for tastes which they have experienced before.

Kat is a great example of this: while I was pregnant with her, I ate a great deal of spicy, garlicky foods, including curries and a lot of vegetable and tofu stir-fries seasoned with chilies, onions and ginger. What does she love to eat now? Lots of vegetables, curries, chilies and onions–she will eat pieces of caramelized onions gleefully, and will munch down on chili-seasoned anything with great gusto.

Of course, the fact is she wants to eat anything she sees me eat–which is exactly what Morganna did at this age (nearly one year old). One cannot discount the importance of the parents’ modeling of any sort of behavior, including dietary choice, when it comes to children. Kids do what they see their parents do, and that extends perfectly into eating as well. In this sense, human kids may be a good bit different than rat babies–so much of human behavior is learned, whereas much of rodent behavior is inborn, instinctive traits.

Even if a taste for fattening food can be influenced via the mother’s diet during pregnancy and lactation, her modeled behavior vis a vis food will have a strong effect as well, and should not be discounted.

In addition, one must remember, that all mammals (including rats and humans) have an inborn preference for sweet and fatty foods because in the natural environment, they are rare and valuable sources of calories. Of course, the modern world of cheap and plentiful food is not the environment in which either humans or rats evolved, so now we have the issue of our own biology being a liability.

In other words, I am not certain that this study means much of anything, really. There are too many variables involved, including the fact that what is true of rats is not necessarily going to be fully true of humans.

I would be interested in the results of a human version of this study, however.


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  1. Well, I do agree with one aspect of the study: Start before the baby is born.

    If you have poor food habits, you will only pass them on to your children through your example (as you stated.) My friends and family wonder why my son doesn’t prefer chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs to brown rice stir fries, fish beans and nuts. Well, it’s most likely because Mommy and Daddy don’t eat those things. So why should we try to feed them to our toddler?

    So when he’s presented those things, he usually turns up his nose. And really, I kinda smile smugly…

    Comment by Maggi — August 16, 2007 #

  2. My first thought on this was that rats are scavengers and it makes a lot of sense for them to go for the high-calorie junk foods. That’s not to say I don’t think the mother’s diet is important for human babies – I do. But I think the nature/nurture question is very difficult to unwrap in humans. And rats are so very different to humans in that respect.

    Comment by Steph in the UK — August 16, 2007 #

  3. “Rat chow.” Yeah, that sounds so much more appetizing than marshmallows and chocolate. It’s like my dog–she ate fatty human foods over her kibble whenever she could, so clearly…

    But the study does make a valid point. And so do you, pointing out human behavior is more learned than inborn. Nice food for thought!

    Comment by Jim — August 16, 2007 #

  4. Oh pah, one of my kids was a breadivore from the time he could express a preference – nothing but bread and cheerios, barely even ate meat. The other has always eaten a wide variety of foods and is quite adventurous in what he will try.

    It is as much about personality as anything else.

    Comment by donna — August 16, 2007 #

  5. I too am skeptical of reports like this, I have to say. My first boy seems to have inherited his dad’s instinctive mistrust of any new food, despite my having tried to introduce him to a variety of healthy foods from day one. Somewhere around 15 months, he stopped accepting most of the foods that kids traditionally dislike: mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, etc. Also, I sometimes feel like every report on children that comes out these days is just another stick to beat the poor confused new mother. Oh no – I shouldn’t have eaten a pastry on the way to work every day when I was pregnant (never mind the fact that it was the only thing that appealed and eased the morning sickness most days). Oh no, that diet coke I consumed somewhere around five months will result in brain damage!

    It reminds me of a report I read recently claiming that fruit juice is as bad for children as soda pop. The example they used? A child who was in the habit of drinking ONE GALLON of orange juice per day. And no one guessed that maybe this might be too much of a good thing??

    Comment by Meg — August 17, 2007 #

  6. You beat me to it, as usual. I’ve drafted a piece on this interesting news item, linking to another piece about how eating low-calories versions of classic foods can lead to obesity. Then there’s the piece in Noodlepie about the old couple who’ve been eating at McDonalds every day for years. What a strange world we inhabit!

    Comment by Trig — August 17, 2007 #

  7. I totally agree with modeling–
    when my son moved into a shared house with 4 other guys he was the only one who had ever eaten fresh vegetables from the produce section.
    They accepted eating fresh grudgingly, but now one of them is working towards being a chief.

    That’s also an interesting aspect of breast milk—breast-fed children being exposed to a greater range of tastes than formula-fed ones. hmmmmmmm

    Comment by wwjudith — August 17, 2007 #

  8. I can see both sides of this. Having two kids, one a more adventuresome eater and the other pretty picky; they have both been exposed to many different foods but have very different eating habits. I think modeling is very important but that personality definitely plays a role, too.

    Comment by Jennifer — August 17, 2007 #

  9. Some cities are taking the more direct route, and banning junk food entirely (as well as baby formula)…at least in schools and public offices

    Comment by Kevin at TasteTV — August 18, 2007 #

  10. Even though I have no children, I do fully agree that parents diet and eating habits are terribly important for a child. I see from my friends and their kids.

    Comment by valentina — August 18, 2007 #

  11. Food Blog Roundup: Midwest Bounty

    The American Midwest is exploding with fruit and vegetables in the late summer – it’s the best time for farmers’ markets. What are Midwest bloggers doing with all this bounty? Becke of Columbus Foodie in Ohio visits Pennsylvania Dutch country…

    Trackback by Apartment Therapy Food — August 21, 2007 #

  12. I believe that, although I opted for the bottle rather the breast.
    I wanted to nurse but I decided after two days of either not a good latch or being in near tears. My mom bottle fed me and I decided that it didn’t make me less of a mother

    I digress, I ate a lot of healthy food, fruit and veggies, peanut butter (one of few things that didn’t flare up acid reflux). I also drank a ton of chocolate milk, salsa and chips (comfort food) and my son loves the stuff I ate.

    My mom who does not like chocolate, ate at least a pound of fudge while she was carrying me and I am a self proclaimed choco-holic, but I do not eat a lot of it and tend to lean toward dark chocolate for two reasons; antioxidents and my boyfriend does not like it.

    Comment by Franki — August 21, 2007 #

  13. I’m very intrigued by the idea that what I eat while pregnant and nursing can potentially effect what my child’s food preferences will be. I’m definitely an adventurous eater, myself, but I know in my case it was nurture and not nature.

    My mother is a very picky eater, very much a meat and potatoes gal. I can remember being told in day care that it was ok to decide I didn’t like something, as long as I tried it first. As a result, my two favorite foods by age 5 were lobster and prime rib. I seem to be the only cheese lover in my family (how can you NOT love cheese???) and am the only one willing to eat sushi, pho, curry, etc.

    Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that somewhere between nature and nurture, we’ll end up with a very adventurous eater on our hands!

    Comment by DawnsRecipes — August 22, 2007 #

  14. […] Here is the blog that I (my husband) found that had a link to the study. Posted by amqcw Filed in Omega-3, Obesity, Health […]

    Pingback by Eating for 2 - Junk Food and Pregnancy « Lost in Randomosity — August 31, 2007 #

  15. As a mom of twins who ate all kinds of food during pregnancy and breastfeeding I can tell you from personal experience it really depends on the child. My son is way more pickier about veggies, greens, rice and lentils. He pretty much doesnt like it if he doesnt like the texture/feel/taste of an item. My daughter will try most things and tends to like savory indian items like dhal/rice/yogurt/rice, fried rice with tofu, scrambled eggs with cheese but my son prefers peanut butter with bagels, toast, carrots and butternut squash, corn, all fruits over eggs, beans and rice.

    I really do expose both of them at the same time to all sorts of foods and I see how each prefers certain tastes more than the other.

    I do agree with one poster – there is so much stuff a mom worries about I dont think we need additional pressure about “eating everything right” during our pregnancy. For my first trimester i was eating rice porridge and limeade. Thats it. For my second tri, I ate all sorts of spicy veggies, curries and rice, shakes and burgers and my third tri mostly fruit and milk and cheese due to heartburn so really.. varied.

    Thats my personal opinion and experience. I do agree modeling good food habits is important but like everything in moderation..

    Comment by Archana, mama of twins — September 12, 2007 #

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