Children's eating patterns seem set in infancy

Children who don’t eat fruits and vegetables as babies are less likely to eat the healthy foods at age six, according to a new series of U.S. nutritional studies on infant feeding.

Healthful eating early in life pays dividends later

Studies have found an association between repeated early exposure to foods such as fruits and vegetables and increased acceptance of them later in life. (Derek Oliver/Canadian Press)

Children who don’t eat fruits and vegetables as babies are less likely to eat the healthy foods at age six, according to a new series of U.S. nutritional studies on infant feeding.

Tuesday’s supplement to the journal Pediatrics includes 11 U.S. government funded studies that tracked the eating patterns of about 1,500 individuals using nearly monthly questionnaires from the third trimester of pregnancy through the baby’s first year of life.

The researchers followed up when the children were six years of age to see how infant diets could affect preferences at school age.

In one study, Kirsten Grimm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her co-authors said infrequent intake of fruits and vegetables during late infancy was associated with infrequent intake of those foods at six years of age.

"Our study suggests that infrequent intake of fruits and vegetables during late infancy is associated with infrequent intake of these foods at six years of age," the researchers concluded. "These findings highlight the importance of infant feeding guidance that encourages intake of fruits and vegetables and the need to examine barriers to fruit and vegetable intake during infancy."

The researchers suggested that parents and caregivers get babies interested in fruit and vegetables by late infancy, between 10 and 12 months. When an infant spits out green beans the first time, a 2007 study suggests, it's worth trying again, because repeated exposure to foods increases acceptance.

A healthy start

Laurence Grummer-Strawn of the CDC and his co-authors wrote a summary of the latest findings.

"It is not clear whether these associations reflect the development of taste preference during infancy or a family eating pattern that manifests at various ages, but the studies do point to the need to establish healthful eating behaviours early in life," they concluded.

In another study in the supplement, researchers found that babies who drank any amount of juices or other sugar-sweetened beverages were twice as likely to drink them at age six, and almost twice as likely to be obese later.

In the U.S. research, 27 per cent of the infants had been fed sugar-sweetened beverages, nearly nine per cent before six months of age.

The Canadian Paediatric Society guidelines on healthy nutrition from birth to six months stresses exclusive breastfeeding with supplemental vitamin D recommended for breastfed infants. From six to 24 months, a joint statement from the pediatric group and Health Canada advises continued breastfeeding and iron-rich options as the complementary foods.

"There's some suggestion, though it's not been proven, that children who receive breast milk receive many, many different tastes from the breast milk because it's dependent on the mother's diet," said Dr. Sharon Unger of the Canadian Paediatric Society's nutrition committee.

Unger, who is also a neonatologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, suggested that parents lead by example by eating all food groups, particularly good portions of fruits and vegetables, along with drinking water.

"Once you have a taste for very sweet foods, you do continue to crave sweet foods. So it is very important to be introduced to all of the vegetables early on and to realize the pleasure of those tastes," Unger said.

While the research isn’t conclusive, the summary authors said, the studies show that infant feeding does help predict some health outcomes later in childhood, such as some infectious diseases and childhood obesity, but not others like food allergies.

Shilpa Mukhi of Toronto has a four-year-daughter and a son who is just over one.

"If they grow up eating vegetables, then they will like vegetables," Mukhi said.

Mukhi said while she makes sure the family has a steady diet of fruits and veggies, she's having "a tough time" getting the baby to eat broccoli.

With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz


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