A friend of mine swears her penchant for malted milkshakes is due to her mom’s daily consumption of them when she was pregnant. And many people trace their love (or dislike) of spicy food back to the Mexican food Mom ate while she was breastfeeding. Although we know many of our food preferences originate in childhood, is there any truth to the notion that a woman’s diet during pregnancy or breastfeeding affects her child’s future food preferences? In other words, will a spinach-eating mama produce a spinach-loving baby?
The Straight Talk
It’s safe to say that the food we’re raised on is often the food we like, if for no other reason than it’s what we’re accustomed to. Food preferences are largely cultural. Yet studies have shown that women can pass on flavor preferences to their children, both in utero and through breast milk. These preferences condition a child toward certain foods and perhaps once served an evolutionary purpose.
Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center did one of the best studies on this subject in 2000. They assigned forty-six women to three different groups. One group of women drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy and water during lactation; another group drank water during the last trimester and carrot juice during lactation; the last group drank water throughout.
After the children were born, researchers fed them two cereal concoctions, one made with carrot juice and one made with water. They watched and measured how much cereal the babies ate and filmed their reactions. Infants exposed to carrot juice while breastfeeding or in the womb ate more of the carrot-flavored cereal than the unexposed babies did. When they watched the babies’ faces, the water-only infants made negative faces while eating the carrot-flavored cereal, while the carrot-exposed babies goo’d and gah’d like normal.
Other research has supported this conclusion, finding that flavors are able to pass through amniotic fluid to the fetus and through breast milk to an infant. For instance, a study done in France indicated that the children of mothers who consumed an anise-flavored drink while breastfeeding were less averse to anise flavor than other kids were. Similar research has shown that other aromatic flavors—like onion, garlic, and vanilla—show up in breast milk and can give children a preference for those flavors. What a mom eats can flavor her breast milk for up to eight hours, so regular consumption of these foods is likely to have the biggest effect.
Why does this happen? For evolutionary purposes, it makes sense that a child would be born liking the same things mom ate; it means the food is toxin-free and safe, and that it is readily available. While we’re born with an aversion to bitter or sour foods, which can signal the presence of toxins, our mothers, via smell and tastes, can condition us to their safe consumption.
It might also mean that a mother can set her child up to eat healthful foods later in life, and steer them away from junk foods—at least in theory. One study showed that babies who were eating solid foods and breastfeeding wouldn’t eat green beans until mom started putting them regularly into her diet. This indicates that a mom can help introduce otherwise unsavory foods into her baby’s diet, giving more credence to the “eating for two” catchphrase. But moms can do damage as well. Animal studies have shown that rats fed a diet high in sugar, salt, and fat during gestation and lactation develop offspring that have an exacerbated preference for fatty, salty, and sugary foods and will choose these over healthier options.
The food a woman regularly incorporates into her diet when she’s pregnant and breastfeeding can alter her child’s food preferences. It may not dictate the way she’ll eat for the rest of her life, or even post breastfeeding, but if you want to have a child who isn’t afraid of vegetables, get them started early. Really early.
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Say What? is a series created to support or debunk common health myths. If you have a question for Brie, please send it to her at email@example.com.