When we think of how we will feed our children, most parents envision peaceful mealtimes, filled with plates of veggies and other healthful foods. Sometimes, though, the reality looks more like a fast-food commercial.
A new study reveals that the key to raising healthy eaters might begin in the womb. “This study suggests that the types of foods in the maternal diet during pregnancy/lactation can have persistent effects on the food preferences of the offspring,” says study author Beverly Muhlhausler, Ph.D., of the FOODplus Research Centre, The University of Adelaide in Australia.
See more: What to Eat When Pregnant
The study shed some light on the idea that what mothers eat during pregnancy can have long-term effects on raising healthy eaters. Though the study subjects were rodents, Muhlhausler and her colleagues believe the evidence is strong and that there is human application. “There appears to be a clear biological basis for the programming of food preferences, which applies just as much in humans as it does in animals,” Muhlhausler says.
So, what if those pregnancy cravings for cookies and potato chips get the better of you? “As with everything, moderation is key,” Muhlhausler says. “We’re certainly not suggesting that one chocolate bar, or take-away once a week, is going to be hugely problematic. What the research does suggest . . . is that if the mother is regularly and consistently overindulging in junk foods while pregnant and breastfeeding, then this has the potential to predispose their child to poor eating habits.”
More advice on raising healthy eaters
Melinda Johnson, MS, RDN, registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that the research presented by Muhlhausler and her colleagues is compelling. “If you try to eat healthier there are other benefits,” she says. “You can be influencing [your children’s] genetic makeup . . . It doesn’t have to be perfect. Eating breakfast, eating more fruits and vegetables.”
There are other things parents can do to stack the odds in favor of raising a healthy eater, Johnson says. Her advice:
- Hold off on solids. Babies should not be introduced to solid foods until they are 6 months old, says Johnson. “Parents tend to introduce solid foods too early. There is no rush, and no benefit.”
- Say no to sugar. “Children do not need added salt or sugar—and stay away from ‘baby desserts’ [such as baby puddings, etc.],” she says.
- Serve real foods. As children get older, Johnson recommends limiting the amount of toddler convenience foods they consume. “If they are eating too many pre-packaged foods, it means they are not experiencing the taste of a ripe peach, or cottage cheese, or other real foods.”
See more: Your Guide to Introducing Solid Food