There is another article in the tiresome littany of obesity handwringing about how mothers are responsible for the lifelong eating habits of their offspring. Why only mothers? Aren’t fathers and other caregivers also responsible for what children eat? Perhaps, but the problems outlined in this article focus on pregnancy and breastfeeding. So guys, you’re off the hook until later.
Under the headline Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb, Kristin Wartman argues in the New York Times that children develop their food tastes in utero and in very early infancy, and that past toddlerhood, these tastes are nearly impossible to change.
The research Wartman cites comes from the Monell Center, which describes itself as “the world’s only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to basic research on taste and smell.” They appear to do some interesting work, such as looking for ways to detect disease through the sense of smell. Gary Beauchamp, the director of the center says of developing tastes,
It’s our fundamental belief that during evolution, we as humans are exposed to flavors both in utero and via mother’s milk that are signals of things that will be in our diets as we grow up and learn about what flavors are acceptable based on those experiences. Infants exposed to a variety of flavors in infancy are more willing to accept a variety of flavors, including flavors that are associated with various vegetables and so forth and that might lead to a more healthy eating style later on.
This, of course, is different from infants exposed to a variety of flavors in old age.
Note the word “might.” There is no conclusive evidence that fetuses and newborns are being set up for lifelong obesity because of what their mothers eat. While it seems plausible that a mother’s eating patterns may help a developing fetus/infant to accept a wider variety of flavors, that does not necessarily have anything to do with obesity. If I eat nothing but tofu and kale, does that mean my kid’s limited exposure to tastes will create a junk food junkie? Or does it sentence the kid to an inability to tolerate anything other than tofu and kale?
It’s not just variety though. Mothers who eat processed foods are creating budding addicts. Jessica Gugusheff, who conducts research with the FOODplus Research Centre in Australia writes,
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.
Wartman, in a feat difficult to accomplish, manages to excoriate both formula feeding and breastfeeding moms–the formula feeders don’t expose their kids to variety, since formula always tastes the same. But the breastfeeders are exposing their kids to all the junk they eat themselves, thus setting up the kid’s lifelong quest for a food high.
The causal relation between breastfeeding and lower rates of obesity is controversial in any case. Though there is a correlation, as the World Health Organization concludes in their 2013 meta-analysis:
[T]he meta-analysis of higher-quality studies suggests a small reduction, of about10%, in the prevalence of overweight or obesity in children exposed to longer durations of breastfeeding. Nevertheless, it is not possible to completely rule out residual confounding because in most study settings breastfeeding duration was higher in families where the parents were more educated and had higher income levels.
It is important not to oversell any particular food or feeding method. Kids who breastfeed from moms with poor nutrition, formula feed, or eat a lot of junk in childhood generally come out just fine–and some kids fed “ideal” diets struggle with obesity. Still, I don’t think many would argue that breastfeeding is usually best or that a diet based on fresh foods close to their natural state is preferable to processed foods full of fat, salt, and sugar. So how do we get people to eat these foods–Do we ban advertising of low-quality foods? Do we facilitate the promotion of high quality foods? Do we stop farm subsidies for corn and redirect them to organic broccoli? Or do we restrict people’s access to foods and blame them for eating them or feeding them to their kids? Wartman says,
[R]egulating processed food products and infant formula, and creating clear warning labels to deter parents from feeding their children potentially harmful foods may be our best shot.
I am all for banning the advertising of infant formula and of the marketing of junk food to children (including the marketing of child-focused junk foods to anyone. You may think this is paternalistic, so brief tangent: when I worked in a daycare in a housing project, a young mom told us that she had fed her infant his first solid food. What was it, we asked. The answer: Cheetos. Because they have real cheese. There was also a trend in this community to sell baby bottles with the Pepsi logo on them. Guess what the moms started putting in the bottles…).
(actual ad from the 1950s)
But warning labels on foods with unrestricted marketing are just a guilt trip. Because what parents need is more guilt. That will make them better parents. They can expend energy worrying about warning labels rather than, say, taking their kids to the playground. Or advocating for more green space. Or making tofu-kale smoothies. Or any number of things that, unlike guilt, would lead to better nutrition and less obesity.