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Developing healthy eating habits

The diet of infants and young children can not only determine their health during childhood but can also influence the type of foods that they prefer in later life and, consequently, contributes to their long-term health1,2. Increasingly, research indicates that variables in early life, including the foetal environment and childhood food habits, may have an impact on risk factors for chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers in later life2,3.

Introduction

Vegetables are an essential part of a healthy balanced diet and a low intake is associated with negative health outcomes2.

As food preferences established in early childhood have been shown to track into adulthood, infants and young children should be encouraged to accept a variety of vegetables to promote healthy eating habits that last a lifetime4.

 

Origins of taste preferences in infants

Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, which may be why parents find introducing children to fruit much easier than vegetables, many of which can be bitter tasting1,5. It is possible, however, to influence the development of taste preferences during infancy and childhood through repeated exposure to initially rejected tastes4-8. In effect, babies learn to accept a variety of flavours.

The development of taste preferences begins in the womb5. As the taste buds and olfactory system develop during the first trimester, the fetus is exposed to taste through the amniotic fluid which contains molecules derived from the mother’s diet1,5,. Flavour learning continues after birth as breast milk also contains flavour components determined by the mother’s diet1,5.

Weaning: a critical stage

Research shows that between 4 and 7 months, infants are sensitive to accepting new flavours and textures5-12. Food neophobia, a reluctance to accept new foods, is displayed during infancy and into early childhood, peaking between 2 and 5 years of age5,8. Therefore, this transitional period of weaning from milk to solid foods is a critical window in the development of taste preferences.

One reason parents may find it more challenging to introduce bitter tasting foods, like some vegetables, is that an infant’s facial reaction can be interpreted as one of dislike compared to their reaction to sweet tastes5,13. Infants given bitter tastes display frowning, head shaking and nose wrinkling, which parents may interpret as dislike and stop offering the food5,13.

Despite this initial negative response to bitter tastes, research shows that repeated exposure to an initially disliked taste can have a positive effect and alter an infant’s preference8,11.

Persistence is key, however, and it can take between 8 and 10 attempts for an infant to readily accept an initially disliked food8,11.

Supporting parents to introduce vegetables

Since a diet low in vegetables may pose increased risks for the development of chronic diseases later in life1-3, it is important that children are encouraged to develop healthy eating habits from the start. In order to help parents introduce a variety of vegetables, we have created a simple process that has a vegetable-first approach to weaning.

1. START with single vegetable flavours
Just a few spoonfuls at a time – don’t mask the flavours with fruit.
2. VARY the vegetable flavours
Offer different vegetables every day.
3. REPEAT each flavour up to 10 times
Don’t give up after a few attempts.

 

  1. Beauchamp GK and Menella JA. Early Flavour Learning and Its Impact on Later Feeding Behaviour. JPGN 2009; 48: S25-S30.
  2. Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases (2002: Geneva, Switzerland). Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases: Report of A Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation, Geneva, 28 January — 1 February 2002.
  3. Koletzko B et al. (Eds.) 2005. Early Nutrition and Its Later Consequences: New Opportunities – Perinatal Programming of Adult Health. New York; Springer Dordrecht.
  4. Nicklaus S et al. A Prospective Study of Food Preferences in Childhood. Food Qual Pref 2004; 15: 805–818.
  5. Ventura A & Worobey J. Early Influences on The Development of Food Preferences. Curr Biol 2013; 23: R401–408.
  6. Birch LL et al. Infants’ Consumption of a New Food Enhances Acceptance of Similar Foods. Appetite 1998; 30(3): 283–295.
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  8. Maier A et al. Effects of Repeated Exposure on Acceptance of Initially Disliked Vegetables in 7-Month Old Infants. Food Qual Pref 2007; 18: 1023–1032.
  9. Coulthard H et al. Exposure to Vegetable Variety in Infants Weaned at Different Ages. Appetite 2014; 87: 89–94.
  10. Northstone K et al. The Effect of Age of Introduction to Lumpy Solids on Foods Eaten and Reported Feeding Difficulties at 6 and 15 Months. J Hum Nutr Diet 2001; 14(1): 43–54.
  11. Barends C et al. Effects of Repeated Exposure to Either Vegetables or Fruits on Infant’s Vegetable and Fruit Acceptance at the Beginning of Weaning. Food Qual Pref 2013; 29(2): 157–165.
  12. Fildes A et al. Early Exposure to Vegetable Variety on Infants’ Liking and Consumption: The Taste Intervention Study. Presented at European Childhood Obesity Group 23rd Annual Congress. November 2013.
  13. Ganchrow JR et al. Neonatal Facial Expressions in Response to Different Qualities and Intensities of Gustatory Stimuli. Infant Behav. Dev 1983; 6:473–484.