Fat little child

Pregnant women

Diet during pregnancy can influence the child’s future food preferences (Photo: molly_darling)

Do you have a fat little child? Sorry to be blunt, but it might actually be your fault. What you eat as a mother during pregnancy or breast feeding might influence the diet preferences of the child according to some new research. And because you’re the father don’t think you get off scot free. You have at least an indirect influence on your partner’s diet. So let’s get into the facts to make you see the light.

The new research findings suggest that mothers who eat junk food while pregnant have already programmed their babies to be addicted to a high fat, high sugar diet by the time they are weaned. We all know the feelings of pleasure, maybe mixed with guilt, when eating junk food. The derisive term junk food is in this case defined as highly palatable foods high in fat and sugar but low in protein, minerals and vitamins. Think donuts, hamburgers and sugary carbonated beverages among many others. Consumption of such foods triggers release of endogenous opioids by the body as a reward response. These opioids in turn stimulate the production of the hormone dopamine, which produces a good feeling. All well and good, who doesn’t want to feel happy now and then?

The problem of sensitivity

But there is a problem. The researchers found that the opioid signalling pathway in the brain of children being born to “junk-food mothers” was desensitised compared to those whose mothers were eating a standard diet. They would thus need to eat more fat and sugar to get the same pleasurable sensation, increasing their preferences for junk food and encouraging consumption of larger portions. And this could be an increasing societal problem with the children of the children being even worse off. Recognise the problem we see in many developed countries today?

It is nothing unusual in this reaction. It is the same feedback mechanism seen in opioid addicts. They have to gradually consume more of the drug over time to achieve the same highs. Similarly, mothers eating a lot of junk food while pregnant are setting up their children to be addicted to such foods. And the changes might be permanent. Although the research showed that many of the long-term health problems associated with maternal junk food diets can be avoided if offspring carefully follow a healthy diet after weaning, they are always going to have a predisposition for overconsumption of junk food and obesity. It’s going to make it much more difficult for them to maintain a healthy body weight.

The complex control of eating

However, a word of caution might be in place. The results reported above come from laboratory studies of rats. As we have the same reward systems so we might expect the same results in humans. But there is more. There are other systems in place in the brain to regulate when and how much we eat. Thus the above findings might be a bit simplistic.

The clever brain in charge

The clever brain in charge of eating

The clever brain has a structure called the lateral hypothalamus that is in charge of hunger pangs. When blood glucose levels (read sugar levels) are low receptors in this part of the brain fire and you want to eat. Gradually blood glucose levels increase and signals are sent to the ventromedial part of the hypothalamus and you feel full. But as if this is not enough we also have an appetite centre in the brain stem. Appetite relates to the desire for specific types of food and eating experiences, instead of food in the general sense.

And now scientists claim that there are at least another 40 sites in the brain known to play a role in carrying feelings of hunger or satiation and 30 more that probably do. Not to forget the ghrelins and leptins that we have discussed briefly before and are released by the gastrointestinal system when it is empty or full, respectively. And in turn send signals to the brain.

Confused? Well, to be honest I am. But to be on the safe side maybe you should cut back a bit on the junk food intake. You might get the feel good reaction from knowing you are in charge of what you eat and that the food is healthy.

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