It has long been known that many substances pass through the placenta and the breast milk. This is why women are encouraged to abstain from alcohol and smoking during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. It should be no surprise then that researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center have discovered that flavors from the mother’s diet are also passed into the amniotic fluid and breast milk. What is surprising is evidence that this may be the baby’s first introduction to the flavors of solid foods. Even more surprising is that the foods the mother chooses to eat while pregnant and nursing may affect food her child’s food choices later in life.
Research is showing that babies of women who eat a wide variety of foods are more likely to eat a wide variety of foods themselves. Being introduced to diverse flavors in the womb and during infancy has lasting positive effects on food choices in adulthood. It appears that changing these preferences after the first few years of life is extremely difficult, as any adult who has tried to change their eating habits knows.
Now this information may seem disheartening if you are no longer a toddler and recognize that your food preferences are limited and engrained. There are still steps you can take to change your food habits! The CDC Healthy Weight – it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle! website offers strategies for improving your eating habits. It suggests creating a food diary to reflect on your healthy and unhealthy eating habits, paying particular attention to the cues or triggers that influence the unhealthy behaviors. Once you have done this, you start to replace the unhealthy behaviors on your list with healthier alternatives. To set these new habits in stone, you must reinforce these new habits.
Here are a few strategies for changing your behavior.
Before shopping or preparing a meal for the day, take a brief moment to think about times in your life when you enjoyed a healthy meal. One study has shown that adults can increase their preference for vegetables by remembering a previous positive eating experience involving vegetables.
Practice mindful eating. In our hurried lives, it can seem frustrating and slow to sit down and enjoy a meal without any distractions, but a 2011 study published in the journal Appetite suggests that by paying attention to the food you are eating during a meal may reduce snacking later in the day. Another study showed that watching television while eating lunch increased snacking later in the day. Take home message: Turn off the TV, sit down, and enjoy your meal.
Most importantly, remember that changing behavior doesn’t happen overnight. When you find yourself engaging in an unhealthy behavior, quickly stop and ask yourself, “Why did I do this?” and “What changes do I need to make to prevent this behavior in the future?” Do not dwell on the setbacks you make; instead, recognize setbacks, learn from them, and move on. Be sure to also recognize the gains you are making in changing your behavior.
What you can do if you’re pregnant and/or have a new baby in the house?
If you are currently pregnant, eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
Feeding your baby
Breast milk is best – especially when mothers eat a well-balanced diet made up of a wide variety of healthy food. If you are breastfeeding, make a conscious effort to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
What if you don’t breast feed? Consider pumping. Multiple exposures to different flavors is what is needed to increase baby’s chances for eating healthy in the future. Even if you don’t produce enough milk to breast feed exclusively, it may be worthwhile to incorporate some breast milk to increase the variety of flavors your baby is provided. Pumping regularly may help increase your milk production. Some women find themselves with an overabundance of milk when it first comes in. Consider pumping and saving the excess. The CDC’s website on the proper handling and storage of breast milk recommends labeling milk with the date it was expressed and storing it in the back of the freezer, where it will keep for up to 6 months.
Donor milk: There are an increasing number of breast milk banks across the country. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America has a website with information on how milk is processed and where banks are located. If your baby is preemie, adopted, has allergies or a medical condition, or if you are unable to breastfeed for health reasons, you may be eligible to receive donor milk. Getting breast milk from a bank may require a prescription from a pediatrician and may not be cheap, but insurance may cover the costs. Alternatively, consider milk sharing, which is more informal and often cheaper (though not covered by insurance.) The Milk Share website has tips to educate women on alternatives to banked milk. Milk sharing comes with its own risks. If you are considering this route, do your research, know your donors, and consider having the breast milk tested. Find a healthcare professional who supports this decision and will assist you in choosing the right milk donor for you.
Written by Laura Galati NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program. Edited by Dr. Elise Schroeder