Are Children Born Addicted to Junk Food?

fast food, junk food, children's nutrition, pregnancy nutrition
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It is thought that children are born with a preference for certain tastes. But why? Researchers with the University of Adelaide in Australia believe that it could be in part to the diet a woman eats during her pregnancy.

Publishing in the FASEB Journal, Beverly Muhlhausler PhD theorizes that pregnant mothers who consume junk food actually cause changes in the development of the opioid signaling pathway in the brains of the unborn child. This change results in babies being less sensitive to opioids, which are released upon the consumption of foods that are high in fat and sugar. This results in a need to eat more in order to achieve the “feel good” response, potentially leading to obesity.

To come to this finding, Muhlausler and colleagues studied the offspring of two groups of rats. One group had been fed a normal diet during pregnancy and lactation while the other a diet of “junk food.” After weaning, the pups were given daily injections of an opioid receptor blocker which ultimately prevented the release of dopamine. The offspring of the junk-food fed mothers were less effective at reducing fat and sugar intake, suggesting that the opioid signaling pathway was less sensitive.

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Researchers have long known that flavor preferences start very early in life, with this study showing that an “addiction” to junk food can actually begin in utero. "Junk food engages the same body chemistry as opium, morphine or heroin,” says Gerald Weissmann MD, Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB Journal

"The results of this research will ultimately allow us to better inform pregnant women about the lasting effect their diet has on the development of their child's lifelong good preferences and risk of metabolic disease," said Dr. Muhlhausler. "Hopefully, this will encourage mothers to make healthier diet choices which will lead to healthier children."

Doctors recommend the following for the most optimal diet during pregnancy:

  • Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need. Recommended daily servings include 6-11 servings of breads and grains (preferably whole grain, high-fiber), two to four servings of fruit, four or more servings of vegetables, four servings of dairy products, and three servings of protein sources (meat, poultry, fish, eggs or nuts). Use fats and sweets sparingly.
  • Make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals in your daily diet while pregnant. You should take a prenatal vitamin supplement to make sure you are consistently getting enough vitamins and minerals every day.
  • Eat and drink at least four servings of dairy products and calcium-rich foods a day to help ensure that you are getting 1000-1300 mg of calcium in your daily diet during pregnancy. Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese which are often unpasteurized and may cause Listeria infection
  • Eat at least three servings of iron-rich foods per day to ensure you are getting 27 mg of iron daily.
  • Choose at least one good source of vitamin C every day, such as oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, honeydew, papaya, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, tomatoes, and mustard greens. Pregnant women need 70 mg of vitamin C a day.
  • Choose at least one good source of folic acid every day, like dark green leafy vegetables, veal, and legumes (lima beans, black beans, black-eyed peas and chickpeas). Every pregnant woman needs at least 0.4 mg of folic acid per day to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
  • Choose at least one source of vitamin A every other day. Sources of vitamin A include carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, spinach, water squash, turnip greens, beet greens, apricots, and cantaloupe.
  • Decrease the total amount of fat you eat to 30% or less of your total daily calories. For a person eating 2000 calories a day, this would be 65 grams of fat or less per day. Limit cholesterol intake to 300 mg or less per day.
  • Avoid raw fish, especially shellfish like oysters and clams. Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish (also called white snapper), because they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Limit caffeine to no more than 300 mg per day. An 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 150 mg of caffeine on average while black tea has typically about 80 mg. A 12-ounce glass of caffeinated soda contains anywhere from 30-60 mg of caffeine. Remember, chocolate contains caffeine -- the amount of caffeine in a chocolate bar is equal to 1/4 cup of coffee.
  • The use of saccharin is strongly discouraged during pregnancy because it can cross the placenta and may remain in fetal tissues. But, the use of other non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA - Equal, NutraSweet, Aceulfame-K (Sunnett), and sucralose (Splenda) - is acceptable during pregnancy in moderation.
  • Avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol has been linked to premature delivery, mental retardation, birth defects, and low birth weight babies.

Journal Reference:
J. R. Gugusheff, Z. Y. Ong, B. S. Muhlhausler. A maternal "junk-food" diet reduces sensitivity to the opioid antagonist naloxone in offspring postweaning. The FASEB Journal, 2012; DOI: 10.1096/fj.12-217653
Additional Resource:
WebMD: Eating Right When Pregnant

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