Study: Differences in Dietary Habits Begin Very Early in Life

For babies under the age of two, there are no U.S. dietary guidelines other than the general recommendation by national and international organizations that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months.

Newswise — BUFFALO, N.Y. – You have to be at least two years old to be covered by U.S. dietary guidelines. For babies under the age of two, there are no U.S. dietary guidelines other than the general recommendation by national and international organizations that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months.

So what do American babies eat? That is the question that motivated researchers at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to study the eating patterns of American infants aged six and 12 months old. Their study, “Sociodemographic differences and infant dietary patterns,” was published earlier this month inPediatrics.

“We found that differences in dietary habits start very early,” says Xiaozhong Wen, MBBS, PhD, assistant professor in the UB Department of Pediatrics and lead author on the paper.

Wen conducts research in the UB Department of Pediatrics’ Behavioral Medicine division, studying how and why obesity develops in infants and children. Studying the first solid foods that babies eat can provide some insight into whether or not they will develop obesity later on, he explains. “From six to twelve-months is a critical period for babies, it’s when infants learn the tastes of different foods,” he says.

The UB researchers found that dietary patterns of children aged 6 and 12 months old vary according to the racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds of their mothers. 
For example, babies whose dietary pattern was high in sugar, fat and protein or high in dairy foods and cereals, were associated with mothers whose highest education level was some or all of high school, had low household income (generally under $25,000/year??), and who were African-American. Both the high sugar/fat/protein pattern and the high dairy pattern resulted in higher body mass index scores for the babies as compared to those who had higher consumption of vegetables and fruits, baby cereal and meat.

Babies who consumed larger amounts of formula and baby cereal, indicating little or no breastfeeding, were associated with being born through emergency caesarean section and enrollment in the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women and Infant Children (WIC). Wen noted that one possible reason for high formula consumption in this group is that WIC provides financial assistance for formula purchases.

On the other hand, babies whose dietary pattern included more breastfeeding and solid foods that adhere closely to infant guidelines from international and pediatric organizations were associated with higher household income, generally above $40,000/year, and higher education levels ranging from some college to post-graduate education.

“This study showed us that dietary patterns already exist among young infants,” says Wen, “and they’re harder to change later if you ignore the first year.”
Some of the unhealthy ‘adult foods’ that were consumed by 6-month and 12-month old babies in the study included items that are inappropriate for infants, such as candy, ice cream, potato chips and French fries.

“There is substantial research to suggest that if you consistently offer foods with a particular taste to infants, they will show a preference for these foods later in life,” Wen explains. “So if you tend to offer healthy foods to infants, such as pureed vegetables, they will develop a liking for them. But if you always offer sweet or fatty foods, infants will develop a stronger preference for them.

“This is both an opportunity and a challenge,” says Wen. “We have an opportunity to start making dietary changes at the very beginning of life.”

The researchers also found that babies whose diets consisted mainly of high fat/sugar/protein foods were associated with shorter length-for-age scores.

“We’re not sure why this happens,” explains Wen, “but it’s possible that because some of these foods that are high in sugar, fat or protein are so palatable they end up dominating the baby’s diet replacing more nutritious foods, that could be higher in calcium and iron, therefore inhibiting the baby’s growth.”

The UB researchers based their analysis on a subsample covering more than 1,500 infants, nearly evenly split between genders, from the Infant Feeding Practices Study II, conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2005 to 2007. In that study, mothers recorded which of 18 different food types their 6- and 12-month old babies ate in a week; those data then were used to develop dietary patterns.

Co-authors with Wen are Kai Ling Kong, PhD and Chuanbo Xie, MD, PhD of the Department of Pediatrics; Rina Das Eiden, PhD of UB’s Research Institute on Addictions and Neha Navneet Sharma of the UB Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. 
The project was funded by a seed grant from the UB Department of Pediatrics.