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Lifelong dietary habits linked to early-life sensory experiences

When I was a little girl, my mother and I were once invited for a cup of tea by a neighbour. I quickly declined because the offer was ‘ndubia’– kikuyu for sugarless tea.

My mother says my response went something like; “I can’t take tea without sugar. Not even for money”. Ha! The irony is that years later, and presently, I do not take sugar in any beverage.

Now, children are biologically born with a tendency to prefer sweet foods over bitter foods.

And while this is thought to have been an adaptation to prevent consumption of poisonous foods in the older years when food was scarce, today this is more of a risk factor owing to the fact that our food environment is characterized by an abundance of unhealthy, sweetened foods and beverages that place children at risk of excessive weight gain.

Fortunately, evidence suggests that food preferences can be influenced so that children can learn to eat and enjoy healthy food from before birth, and throughout their development.

Research shows that food flavours are transmitted from a mother’s diet to the amniotic fluid and breast milk. As such, a mother who consumes a healthy diet exposes her young one to these flavours and therefore eases the baby’s transition to healthy food when the baby starts eating food (complementary feeding and weaning).

On the other hand, a maternal diet that consists of sweet and unhealthy food options passes on the same to children, therefore inhibiting the baby’s acceptance of healthier food options.

At the same time, children who are fed on formula tend to prefer flavours from the formula which differ from those in breast milk, and could result in such children being less accepting to flavours that are not in formula.

Given, it is critical that during pregnancy and breastfeeding mothers observe healthy diets, and continue giving healthy options to children even though they initially dislike them.

Over time, they will become more familiar and accepting to the healthy foods.

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Christine Nderitu

Licensed Nutritionist and Public Health Practitioner, Christine, helps people lead healthy lifestyles through health education and behaviour change practices that are simple and practical. She writes a weekly (Monday) nutrition column in the People Daily and is experienced in nutrition management, research, health education and promotion in; HIV/AIDS, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Maternal and Child Health and Non-Communicable Diseases. She has been engaged in these activities since 2011. Christine feels the world needs more stories that celebrate and normalize desired (good) behaviour. And humanity-we have many preventable and often manmade public health issues today.