Nutrition and the human body are interrelated to such a degree that no day goes by without yet another food item making headlines in health journalism. Good or bad. Given our diets, we tend to read mostly bad news, although some items – like wine, for instance – seem to go back and forth.
Although the idea that food can serve as medicine has been around for at least two millennia (1), the holistic, scientifically verified view that we ultimately end up being just as healthy and balanced as our diet, is a bit more recent. Even now, important medical bodies around the world are slow to acknowledge the full impact of certain food items.
One aspect of food that gets lost in the wider narrative is the fact that dietary habits during pregnancy and throughout the first year of our lives have a tremendous impact our later food choices and preferences. That’s what I’d like to talk about here.
Food Before You Knew It
The evidence behind the development of food preferences whilst we’re still in the womb is well documented by the growing field of biopsychology. As early as 2006 (2), lead researcher Julie Mennella was pointing out that we are first introduced to dietary flavours through the amniotic fluid. Our taste buds start to develop during the third month, and, at 21 weeks old, we are able to discern between individual flavours.
This is just mind-boggling. Think of how important food is to our survival (not only as individuals, but as a species) if we start to learn flavours as soon as we’re the size of an iPad or dinner plate. What’s more, experiencing a variety of flavours was shown by Mennella’s research to increase a baby’s predisposition to new food items during weaning and afterwards. Sure, you could argue that we are biologically predisposed to like sugary and salty treats, nevertheless the core of our eating predilections during the first stage of our lives are the result of what we were fed during our first 1000 days of existence.
Breastfeeding is also paramount to children being open to more flavours, as the variation in flavours and textures they experience through natural milk, as opposed to artificial formula, continues to stimulate and nurture their appreciation for a diverse diet (3). This certainly explains why children who are brought up in cultures that do not rely on the staple American diet regularly eat and love vegetables, not to mention spicy, pungent, and even bitter tasting food items. Just think of ginger, wasabi, garlic, kale, or the famous Durian fruit.
No matter how you look at it, our young ones will always resist new food items. However, if we want our future generations to have better odds of eating healthy, we need to make sure they are intimately familiarised with a wide range of healthy food items and flavours starting with the gestational period. If you eat your veggies on a regular basis, odds are that your children will also do the same.
How Early Preference Becomes Adult Behaviour
As the child transitions to their complementary eating phase, it is vital that they get to discover the multitude of sensorial experiences that food has to offer. Even if they might be opposed to certain fruits and/or vegetables, we know that repeated exposure will increase their familiarity with whole foods. Being accustomed to something is very likely to get them to overcome food neophobia (5), given a sufficient number of exposures.
Trials have shown that parents try, on average, five exposures before giving up. However, a minimum of eight is necessary in order to elicit familiarisation and, even then, it might take just a bit more effort to get through. The mere continued presence of the food, as well as the model of close family and relatives eating/enjoying it is enough. Don’t do double standards. Children are smart and they will tell instantly.
Consistency is key to acquiring a healthy, first dietary preference. Of course, these inclinations tend to change as we grow older, but, as you probably know by now, nothing strikes closer to home than the alluring smell of something our parents used to cook.
Although we know that we should stop eating processed foods, this is something that we really have to work hard at, and in doing so, become more consciously aware of what we are eating. If you need help planning a healthy diet, there are plenty of authoritative resources online, including the UK government’s eatwell guide.
Remember in today’s social and economic climate, people are becoming ever more busy, and rely more and more on pre-packaged and processed foods. Besides which, you are going to enjoy eating these processed foods because these are products that were invented in the age of consumerism and developed by food scientists using cutting-edge technologies, to please and sell. Conversely, we have to get acquainted with and develop a relationship with whole foods for us to accept and perhaps even develop a craving for them; it appears that they have become an acquired taste.
It’s not only our food preferences that are formed during this phase, but also ourselves as a whole. If we’re fed too much sugar throughout the gestation period, as well as within the first few years, our cognitive skills, such as our ability to solve problems or the capacity of our verbal memory, are the first to suffer (6). Long-term, this continued exposure also leads to a host of metabolic disorders.
A Time like No Other
The first 1000 days of our existence are no less than fundamental to our development as adults. Our predisposition to certain illnesses, our dietary preferences, and even our level of cognitive development all depend (to a great extent, but not exclusively) on what we are fed throughout this timeframe. Unlike later on, when children reach the age of discernment and become able to make their own decisions, what happens in early childhood is completely up to the parents and what they do.
We humans should all know the importance of properly considering what foods we feed our children, yet people generally appear to be lesser aware of the importance of food choices during pregnancy. Not only is pregnancy a crucial time for foetal development, but also sets the stage for how our future generations will transpire. Science now teaches us that our diet is an important factor in cognitive development, furthermore, healthy and nutritious whole foods can also help to nourish your brain; yes food can also have a nootropic effect. If you’d like more information on how you can optimise your brain, you can read an in-depth on the best nootropics by dna lean.
If, as parents, we make the right decisions at the right time – when we still have great influence over our children – we significantly increase their odds of making the right dietary choices on their own, when they are older. And we’re not even touching upon the subject of delayed/stunted growth or illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, CVDs, and much more. Past generations might not have known (for sure) what sugar and processed foods can do to our anatomy, but now, there can be no more excuses.