New studies show your baby, too, is what you eat.
Most of us know that maintaining a “healthy” weight during pregnancy is key to delivering a healthy baby. But new studies show that what you eat in order to achieve that weight may actually determine your child’s food preferences after they leave the womb—and by extension, their lifelong risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
"That gestational nine-month window is increasingly recognized as a critical window where the baby’s metabolism is being set,” says Carrie McCurdy, an assistant professor of human physiology at The University of Oregon. “We’re trying to understand how the mother’s diet, coupled with being overweight or obese, affects the fetus.”
McCurdy and her colleagues at the Oregon National Primate Research Center exposed pregnant Japanese macaques (monkeys) to a “typical” American diet—one high in fat and sugar—then measured the vital stats of their babies once they turned a year old. When tested, the offspring showed signs of problems uncommon to such a young age, including muscle damage and fat in their livers and arteries—maladies that didn’t afflict babies born to macaque moms who abstained from gummy candy.
“What’s really interesting about children is the preferences they form during the first years of life actually predict what they’ll eat later,” Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist and researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, told The New York Times. According to her research, babies develop more adventurous palettes when their moms eat nutrient-dense and varied diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding—preferences that stick with them throughout their lives.
"Dietary patterns track from early to later childhood, but once they are formed, once they get older, they’re really difficult to change,” she told the Times; "Where you start is where you end up.”
Don’t mistake advice for healthy eating for a recommendation to restrict. Doing so can have disastrous consequences for the fetus according to 1000 Days, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the crisis of global maternal and child under-nutrition. Babies who are malnourished in the womb have a higher risk of dying in infancy and are more likely to face lifelong cognitive and physical deficits and chronic health problems. Not to mention the fact that one landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that babies exposed to famine in utero and early infancy were more likely to become obese as adults, presumably because their bodies were used to hoarding calories.
If this all sounds like a recipe for a tastelessly virtuous nine months, take heart: It’s not so hard to help your baby thrive without becoming obese. Just lay off the processed stuff, and trade in those gummy peaches for the real thing.