breastfeeding babyThe obesity epidemic - affecting approximately 70 percent of the American population - is generating more and more medical research into the science behind food, food preferences, and dietary habits. One common theme emerging from this research is that food preferences start early, perhaps as early as in the womb.

Another finding is that once food preferences are established in the first few years of life, it’s almost impossible to change them later. These two findings together emphasize the importance for a woman to eat a variety of healthy foods during pregnancy so as to ensure a life-long preference for healthy foods for the baby she carries.

A healthy pregnancy diet consists of a wide variety of colorful foods, each supplying a unique set of nutrients. The deeper in color a food is - spinach or red leaf lettuce versus iceberg, for example - the more nutrients it contains, making “eating the rainbow” an easy way to achieve optimum nutritional value from food choices. Together, the variety provides more of the nutrients a person needs for optimum health.

When these foods are eaten during pregnancy, the fetus feeds on and benefits from these nutritious foods just as the mother does. Later, during breastfeeding when their flavors are present in the milk, the desire for these same healthy foods is strengthened in the child.

Monell Chemical Senses Center has conducted experiments on food preferences in infants and young children. It finds that children prefer a wide range of flavors when their mother ate a diverse diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The child’s preferences for healthy foods remained intact into adulthood. Monell is a non-profit research center in Philadelphia devoted to the study of the human senses.

A recent Australian study confirms the Monell study although from the opposite end of the nutrition spectrum. At the University of Adelaide in South Australia, experiments at the FoodPlus research center found that a mother’s junk food diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding becomes the preferred diet of the child she carries.

Furthermore, a junk food diet alters expression of opioid receptor genes much the same way narcotic drugs do. Desensitization develops that leads a child to crave more and more junk food just as an addict needs increasingly higher doses of a drug to achieve the same high.

A Monell study of the effect of sweet flavors indicates sweetness has an analgesic effect on babies and children. Babies and children were able to hold a hand in cold water longer when something sweet was in their mouths, again suggesting a connection with opioid receptors. This pain-killing effect diminishes when the child is obese.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend breastfeeding from a minimum of six months (CDC) to a minimum of two years (WHO). Breast milk contains the varied flavors of the foods the mother consumes and allows the child’s taste preferences to develop accordingly. Only about 15 percent of American women breastfeed exclusively as long as six months, relying instead on formula. The formula is available in only one flavor, making it impossible for a formula-fed child to develop preferences for a healthy array of flavorful, nutritious foods.

Source: Wartman, Kristin. “Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb.” New York Times. Dec 1, 2013. Web. Dec 3, 2013.