Feeding Your Child for a Lifetime
Just how important is a child's diet? What you feed
your infant, toddler, or adolescent can determine their growth and
performance over a lifetime, researchers say.
"What we eat in childhood can affect our body, our health, and
even our life-span decades later," said Dr. Susan Roberts,
associate professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Boston's Tufts
University, and chief of the Energy and Metabolism Laboratory, at
Tufts' Human Nutrition Research Center.
Roberts led a symposium into the long-term effects of childhood
nutrition at this week's Experimental Biology Conference 1997, held
in New Orleans. She says proper diets are most important during the
two major growth-spurt periods -- infancy and adolescence.
Skeletal development is just one example. Roberts cites the research
of Dr. Alan Lucas, of the MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Center in
London. He found that 8-year-olds who were fed formula (instead of
breast milk) as infants, had less-developed bone mineralization than
8-year-olds who had been fed breast milk. "So bone density at 8
years of age is influenced by what... they were given when they were
still in the first months of life," Roberts explained.
Studies have uncovered other long-term benefits to feeding infants
breast milk, Roberts says. "There's intelligence effects,
there's physical development, motor skills, there's differences in
immune function." She says that, as good as most formula is, it
can't match the variety of necessary compounds found in breast milk.
For example, Roberts points out that a fetal brain size increases by
over 50% in the last month of gestation. Removed from the mother's
circulation, "premature babies need to get those nutrients from
what they eat instead," she said. This is where breast milk
wins hands down. Certain fatty acids and vitamins in breast milk
encourage the development of special nerve coatings, for example,
which are necessary for the smooth operation of a host of
And Roberts says research shows that infant eating patterns can
influence the tendency to obesity years later. "There have been
some wonderful studies on baboons, in which baboons were overfed too
many calories early in life," she explained. "It had a bit
of an effect on infant fatness, but not a huge effect, and after the
overfeeding was taken away the baboons returned to normal weight.
But when they got into adolescence, the baboons who had been overfed
in infancy became obese."
Why the delayed reaction? Roberts believe that the high-calorie
infancy diet 'programming' "lay dormant, waiting for the
hormonal changes that happen in adolescence until it became
Roberts is currently working on a study, along with University of
Sao Paolo researcher Dr. Ana Sawaya, investigating the adult-onset
obesity of formerly malnourished children.
"Children are programmed to grow according to their genetic
blueprint," Roberts explained. "If you don't give them the
calories that they need as small children, a kind of hormonal
conservation mechanism clicks in.... What you end up with are
adolescents who are growth-stunted, because they were calorically
restricted as infants. They don't get fat when they're eating a
low-fat diet, but they do get fat when they're eating a high-fat
diet later on. They've got hormones which are impairing their
ability to oxidize fats."
Parental feeding habits are key factors in starting children's diets
right. Pennsylvania State University's Dr. Leanne Birch told the
symposium that children need to be introduced to a wide variety of
'normal' foods as toddlers. "We start life on milk,"
Roberts said, "But by the age of 6 months, kids start putting
things in their mouths, anything. And this is an expression of the
child's instinct to consume a varied diet. This is displayed in all
kinds of ways -- they'll eat toys, mud, crayons. The reason is that
biologically speaking, they need to get a varied diet at that
Roberts believes the most important thing a parent can do is respect
this instinct -- and allow children to become familiar with a whole
host of healthy foods as soon as possible.
And she urges that parents respect their offspring's natural
hunger/fullness signals as well. "We start with natural
balances, but if our parents come along and make us eat when we're
not hungry, to 'clear our plates,' things like this, what they're
doing is teaching children to ignore their natural, biological
signals. And its those biological signals which stop you from
She says the American tradition of using the high-calorie dessert as
a 'reward' for getting through the main course is a prime example of
mismanaged child (and adult) dieting behavior. "There's
something called a 'discounting principle' in psychology -- the Marx
brothers-type psychology of 'if you want me to do it, it must be
something I don't want to do.' By saying to children, 'You can't
have your dessert until you've eaten your string beans,' you're
teaching them to desire the sugary dessert, throughout childhood and