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the early years: food’s starring role during this critical window of child development

the early years: food’s starring role during this critical window of child development

The first years of life have long been the child development researcher’s sweet spot; the incredible growth during these initial years is the stuff of life-long impact. Until recently, though, the role food and nutrition play in shaping a child during this time had been largely ignored. Now nutritionists and pediatricians are paying attention. We sat down with our friend and advisor Dr. Alan Greene to get the skinny.

Q: So why are these first years of a child’s life so important? And how does food factor in?

Dr. Greene: Early life experiences can set little ones on a trajectory— which could lead towards health or away from it. I believe that the first months and years are the foundation for all of a child’s development: emotional, physical, and cognitive. Access to certain nutrition—or lack thereof—could impact which genes will be turned on or off, changing how the body will handle calories and many aspects of development. Some studies have suggested that core metabolism as well as core comfort foods may be influenced by the age of three. There may be risks associated with a child not being exposed to proper nutrients or a wide variety of flavors during this time. The absence of iron and Omega-3 fats may leave brains structurally different, potentially impacting health and development. It’s also much more difficult to learn to enjoy the flavor of a healthy food or to develop taste preferences if you’re not exposed to it early on. I call this Nutritional Intelligence, or the ability to recognize and enjoy healthy amounts of good food.  In my assessment, many kids in the United States haven’t yet reached their potential for Nutritional Intelligence. But it’s easy to cultivate Nutritional Intelligence in your children by giving them a wide variety of fresh-tasting healthy foods enough times early on, so that they can learn the flavors, start enjoying them, and build their taste preferences.

Q:  When do children develop taste preferences? Is it true that palate development can begin during pregnancy? Keeping this in mind, is there such a thing as the “right” first food? 

DG: A lot of people think that taste preferences are genetic. That’s mostly not the case. Most of our preferences come from experience. It’s true that kids are hardwired to enjoy something that’s sweet or salty or has fat in it; they just taste good inherently. Anything that’s bitter or sour they don’t have an initial preference for. And that makes sense, because if something tastes bitter it might be toxic; if something is sour, it might be spoiled. During the window where a baby is sitting up and learning to walk it can take about 6 to 10 times, often up to 16, to learn to like a new flavor. But it doesn’t actually start with the first bite of solids. In fact, babies’ development of taste preferences starts before birth and continues through breastfeeding. Flavors come through both amniotic fluid and breast milk. Research has shown that if babies drink breast milk of a mom who has eaten a vegetable, the babies can learn to recognize this flavor and have a preference for this vegetable when they are being introduced to solids. As for “right” first foods, breast milk is the perfect food and is ideal for supporting growth, body development and immune systems. Formula is designed to offer as many as possible of the nutrients that you can find in breast milk. After starting solids, ideally, a baby’s core nutrition will still come from breast milk or formula throughout that first year. As parents introduce fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and protein sources, it’s most important to go for variety and balance. Our goal is to raise children that are adventurous eaters. As long as your child is healthy and you have no reason to expect an allergic reaction, don’t be afraid of offering what are commonly considered allergens, even in the first year.We’ve learned in recent years that a lot of the old cautionary recommendations just don’t hold water. Neither is there a correct order of foods. When it comes to allergies, the available evidence suggests exposing kids in the first year even to highly allergenic foods such as eggs, peanuts, milk or fish can actually be helpful to prevention. I firmly recommend that with healthy children you do not delay any foods beyond 6 months of age in an effort to prevent allergies as long as they are not already experiencing allergies. There’s also no evidence that suggests waiting three to five days between foods is safer for babies. In fact the opposite is true. If they get new foods frequently, and mixtures of foods, they are more likely to be adventurous eaters.

Q: Variety is key, but some kids reject new foods. Can you talk about Food Neophobia? What should parents know about this transitional moment? 

DG: Food Neophobia is a physical fear or suspicion of new foods, new flavors, new food appearances, new sources of foods. It begins to set in when kids start walking. At this stage of new independence, kids are pre-wired not to trust new foods, unless their parents have given them the foods many times before. That means there’s this wonderful opportunity before Neophobia starts. That said, you will be able to combat Neophobia with, say, a 4-year-old. It’s easier the earlier you start, but we can learn to enjoy new foods and change our metabolism at any age. If they just get one bite of something many times, eventually the switch will turn and they’ll start to like it. Get older kids involved in food preparation. They’ll be far more likely to deeply trust food to overcome the Neophobia when they’re involved in preparing it. Try cooking classes, going to the farmers’ market and having them help pick things out, or growing fruits, veggies or herbs together to help your child trust and like new foods. And use their friends. If they see a slightly older peer enjoying a food, then the younger ones are more likely to try it and like it. As always, talk to your pediatrician about the best way to introduce foods to your baby.

Q: Every time we talk to you, we're struck by how much there is for parents to remember! What are three simple things parents should keep in mind about food and nutrition during these early developmental years? 

DG: The first thing is to start with a whole lot more. The first few years is the critical window to get this exposure in! Variety is the key and that includes spices and lots of flavor! The second key is not to give up. Babies are designed not to like everything at first exposure. So it’s critical to repeat often when introducing them to new foods. And the third is to share meals around the family table. Share some of the same foods together, especially the ones that you want them to learn to eat. Kids learn to like foods not just by what they taste but by what the family is eating. By starting family meals early, this becomes a style of eating that they’re accustomed to and expect.