Giving Your Child A Head Start: The Importance Of Nutritional Imprinting

Nutritional ImprintingWhether early diet influences long-term health or achievement is a key question in the study of nutrition. Such long-term consequences would invoke the concept of nutritional imprinting, which is a process that can stimulate or retard future development at a critical period of a child’s life. Research from small mammals and primates shows that early nutrition may have potentially important long-term effects, for example on blood lipids, plasma insulin, obesity, atherosclerosis, behavior, allergies, learning, and very importantly, on influencing a child’s palate for future food selection.

It is estimated that today one out of three adolescents is obese and that number is growing rapidly.  Our children and young adults are now suffering from diseases once isolated among the older population, such as heart disease, and especially Type 2 diabetes, which is considered directly related to poor diet and nutrition.  How did our children get to this alarming point? According to The Journal of Biological Chemistry there has not been a significant change in the gene pool in the United States in recent decades, and it is therefore unlikely that genes related to obesity are involved in the increased incidence in this disease. It is becoming clear that the origins of chronic diseases are not limited to only inherited genes and/or sedentary life styles. It now appears that early introduction of foods high in carbohydrates such as cereals, fruits, juices, etc., may contribute to nutritional imprinting that leads to adult-onset diseases like obesity and diabetes. With this comes the early introduction of poor health, which has the potential for lifelong health problems and staggering medical bills.  More importantly, is there a way to avoid this worrisome state of affairs and if so, how?

We obviously understand the importance of the mother’s proper nutritional intake while  pregnant and breastfeeding. Yet we often forget that once a child  consumes its first meals beyond breast milk (the way every mother should feed her child), superior nutrition is very important for continued good health. As shown in an article in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, perinatal nutritional status is recognized to have a profound and persistent influence on neurologic development and cognitive function. Similarly, classic epidemiologic studies of survivors of the Dutch famine of 1944–1945 suggest that perinatal nutrition influences adult body mass index (BMI), often considered a proxy for body composition.  In addition, they found an association between human birth weight and adult chronic disease morbidity and mortality suggesting that prenatal nutrition may permanently affect metabolism.

When we think of a child’s venture into “real food” we usually think of bland concoctions sold in glass jars or highly processed cereals devoid of any real nutritional content.  Not only do these food choices lack genuine flavor or superlative nutrition, it appears that reliance on these inferior foods may be also setting up children for lifetime preferences for unhealthy foods.  Imprinting research seems to suggest we are born with a taste blueprint, and our early experiences can determine if we will prefer healthy foods or unhealthy foods later in life.

Today many parents struggle with economic and time constraints, which makes it easier for them to rationalize taking less time to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their children.  In this environment it is no surprise that children 18-24 months old in the United States eat no whole grains, and just one third eat fruit on a typical day.  But 91% of children consume high sugar desserts or sweetened beverages every day, and of those who do eat vegetables, French fries are the dominant choice.

How to make the changes to feed your young children healthy foods? Once you’re ready to introduce solids, usually at about 6 or 7 months, choose a variety of fresh foods, beginning with highly nutritious morsels such as soft-cooked egg yolks and chopped liver, which young children tend to accept eagerly. Don’t forget a sprinkling of sea salt! Then move on slowly to fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash—the last three with plenty of butter—apples, pears, and avocados. Nutritionist Jen Allbritton provides a wonderful introduction to feeding the newly weaned baby with super nutritious foods in her article “Including Baby at the Family Table.”

According to Dr. Alan Greene the author of Feeding Baby Green, the only foods to avoid for safety reasons during the first year because they could potentially cause infections include honey, which can contain botulinum toxin, and the ones mom avoided while pregnant (high-mercury fish, for example). Whenever possible, spring for organic produce, which helps ensure your baby isn’t exposed to harmful pesticides or genetically modified ingredients. And try to introduce as many foods as possible before age 2 or 3, when children go through a stage called neophobia and become physically fearful of trying new foods.  I recall when I was young I would eat nothing but cereal and eggs and my mom pulled her hair out trying to get me to try new foods.

Greene goes on to say for those concerned about getting iron in their child’s diet, you can simply offer iron-rich foods like liver, eggs, seafoods, lentils, beans, prunes, greens, poultry, and meat. And don’t forget a pinch of spice: Thyme, spearmint, marjoram, cumin, parsley, celery seed, turmeric, basil, and oregano all help your child appreciate a wider variety of foods with authentic flavors that will help educate his palate for future gustatory adventures.

Some great ways to motivate your child to eat healthy foods:

Eat with your child.Your children love spending time with you, so make sure to eat with them.  There is no better way to see what they are eating day to day.

Set a good example. If the foods in the house are healthy and you eat them, kids will pick their favorites from among the available healthy choices.

Give them tasty choices.  Mix it up. Children get bored with eating the same foods day in and day out just as adults do.

Fun food presentations.  Now we all remember those Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes (Remember us whole grain flour) our mothers made us!

When all else fails, sneak it in.  I know my mom and grandmother snuck in all kinds of healthy things into my sister’s and my meals and we didn’t even know—that is, until they told us about it when we were older.

It is not only important for adults to eat in healthy ways, but we now know it is absolutely critical for children, especially in their younger developmental years.  By feeding your children a healthy diet you can give them a head start in life that is priceless, and I guarantee they will thank you for it later on when they are the pillars of health and happiness.

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