How Childhood Diet Influences Preferences and Health Outcomes

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Early exposures to foods plays important roles not only in programming the gut microbial ecosystem, but also in shaping an individual’s preferences and dietary habits later in life. In this post, I will focus on the second aspect of this early programming. Research indicates that the foods introduced to children during these developmental stages can have a lasting impact on their future food choices, eating behaviors, and overall health.

During infancy, the transition from a primarily milk-based diet to solid foods occurs around 6 months of age. This phase, often referred to as the complementary feeding period, is characterized by the introduction of a variety of tastes, textures, and flavors. Infants are much more receptive to different flavors than are older children, which makes this introductory period especially important for fostering taste preferences and attitude towards food.

“Food neophobia is an aversion to trying new foods…”

Experts recommend introducing a wide range of foods, including fruits, vegetables, proteins, and diverse cuisines, to create a foundation for varied preferences. Repeated exposure to these foods can help infants become accustomed to a variety of flavors and reduce the likelihood of developing food neophobia. Food neophobia is an aversion to trying new foods, often referred to as “picky eaters,” which is especially common in preschool aged children.

Furthermore, the timing of food introduction can also influence preferences. For example, introducing bitter vegetables or fermented foods like kefir or Sauerkraut during the early stages of complementary feeding can help children develop a preference for these nutrient dense foods.

“…a lack of exposure to certain foods can lead to an increased likelihood of food aversions and limited dietary choices.”

Conversely, a lack of exposure to certain foods can lead to an increased likelihood of food aversions and limited dietary choices. This can often lead to unhealthy dietary choices and patterns later in life as well as a greater likelihood of developing obesity and other chronic diseases.

Preferences can also be shaped by parental modeling, meaning that children can develop a preference for foods they see their parents or caregivers eating on a regular basis. Additionally, children’s preferences may be impacted by media and marketing such as cereal boxes and yogurt pouches plastered with pictures of friendly looking animals and cartoon characters.

“Over 60% of a child’s diet is made up of ultra-processed foods…”

Over 60% of a child’s diet in the US is made up of ultra-processed foods such as soda, candy, chips and TV dinners. Introducing these foods at a very young age is likely to cause children to develop a greater interest in these foods as they get older. And because these foods are designed to be irresistible and essentially “hijack” our taste buds and dopamine release in the brain, it is no surprise developing brains are so susceptible.

Many added flavorings are excitotoxins, a class of chemicals that can overstimulate your neurons. Sugar gives your brain a rush of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and motivation in your brain’s reward system. When dopamine is triggered, it causes you to seek more of whatever it is that gives you that rush, leading to strong preferences for these foods.

“…over consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with greater risk for obesity and chronic health conditions…”

While these foods are highly palatable, they are also typically devoid of nutrients and full of potentially harmful additives such as flavorings, colorings, gums and excess refined sugars. Early consumption of sugary foods can program the preference for sweets in adulthood. Consequently, over consumption of ultra-processed foods in childhood is associated with greater risk for obesity and chronic health conditions such as diabetes and cardiometabolic disease later in life. A good and shocking example for this scenario is the promotion of sugary Coca Cola as a way to calm baby’s and infants by former Mexican president and CEO of Coca Cola Mexico. Mexico today has one of the highest obesity rates in the world!

The choices made during infancy and childhood have the potential to influence an individual’s taste preferences, dietary habits, and overall health trajectory. In addition, they have a profounds influence on the richness and diversity of the gut microbial ecosystem, and on receptor systems in the gut that mediate homeostatic sensations like satiety and hunger. Providing infants and young children with a wide variety of flavors and textures can support a positive and healthy relationship with food. Minimizing a child’s intake of ultra-processed foods can ensure preferences for more nutrient dense foods, resulting in greater health outcomes.

Fiona Riddle Fiona is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD