Like Mother’s Appetite, Like Son’s

Posted on Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Written by Megan Scarth, AHN student

It’s been well-established that parents pass along many of their own traits to their children: you probably share one or more of your parent’s hair or eye colours, for example, and are perhaps around the same height or weight.

But did you know parents can also pass on their food preferences to their children?

The idea that what a mother eats while she is pregnant can affect her child’s food choices is not new, and is often referred to as “nutritional programming. For example, one study recruited three groups of mothers: one group drank 300ml of carrot juice four days a week for the last trimester of pregnancy, a second was placed under the same conditions, but while breastfeeding, and the third simply ate their normal diet. The children of the first two groups went on to develop greater preferences for carrot juice when weaning. Another study conducted out of Queen’s University in Belfast had mothers eat garlic while pregnant, and showed their children developing a preference for garlic at least until age eight.

The genetic component of food choice can run even deeper than simple food preferences, and can even affect tendencies to develop diseases. A study, which is still ongoing, showed that women who survived the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 gave birth to children who were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. More recently, the same study discovered that when these women were still in their first sixteen weeks of pregnancy when they were experiencing famine conditions, their children developed a stronger preference for eating higher-fat foods, and tended to be less physically active.

Most recently, a study published in March 2016 in Nature Genetics provided strong evidence for the epigenetic component of parents’ diets affecting risk of disease in their offspring. The study began by inducing obesity and type two diabetes in mice via a high-fat diet. The researchers then extracted these mice’s sperm and oocytes (eggs) and implanted them into a surrogate mother. They did this to minimize the effects of the genetic parent’s behaviour on their child, so that they could specifically just analyze the effects of genetics. The researchers found that both the mother and father passed on genetic information to the newborn child that made the child at a greater risk for the diseases their parents had — but just like in humans, the mother seemed to have greater genetic influence over the child than the father. The researchers concluded that this evidence for the epigenetic component of disease can partly explain why diabetes has suddenly spread so rapidly around the world in recent years. 

So it’s important to be mindful of the effects of parental food choices on children. You may have already picked up a few habits, whether consciously or sub-consciously: your parents may have always told you to clean your plate, for instance, and you are now used to finishing all of your food. But this isn’t always the best way of eating, as it doesn’t take your internal hunger cues into account when assessing whether you’re actually full. Listening to your own body is key, and tricks such as putting down your fork in between bites can help you to be more in touch with your sense of hunger. Or you may have grown up with a lot of processed snack foods around the house, but now that you’re living on your own, it’s important to be cognizant that you have greater control over your own food choices, and that there are plenty of healthy snack options out there. 

Both a mother’s and father’s food choices seem to have perceptible influences over both a child’s food preferences and risk of disease. So for those who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or father a child someday, it’s a good idea to watch what you eat. Your veggie-loving child will likely thank you for it!

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