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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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Feeding Your Child for a Lifetime

Reuters News


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 physiological functions.

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 apparent."

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 point."

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 getting fat."

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 into adulthood."



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