By Celeste Yarnall, Ph.D
Can children inherit cravings for junk food? As we examine this issue it becomes apparent that this is actually an epigenetic question. In biology, epigenetics is defined as “the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence – hence the name epi- (Greek: over, above, outer) -genetics. It refers to functionally relevant modifications to the genome that do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence.” (source: Wikipedia)
Epigenetics is a fascinating, albeit very new, area of scientific exploration.
A recent study offers us the opportunity to consider the validity of the epigenetic question of whether or not children can inherit cravings for junk food as a result of what their mother ate during her pregnancy. In Sue Gerhardt’s book entitled, Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, we learn that the fetal nervous system records womb experiences. By the time a baby is born, it has received emotional information that has been downloaded directly from the mother’s experiences, which have already shaped half of that brand new baby’s entire personality.
What about what the pregnant mother ate?
Of course nutrition is extremely significant and we are going to explore this subject here, but keep in mind that epigenetically speaking, nutrition isn’t the only thing a mother provides for her fetus. According to Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman in their landmark book, Spontaneous Evolution, we learn that a complex chemistry of maternal emotional signals, hormones, and stress factors also cross the placental barrier and influence fetal physiology and development. When Mom is happy, so is her fetus; when Mom is in fear, so is her fetus. When Mom thinks thoughts of rejection towards her fetus, the fetus’ nervous system programs itself with the emotion of rejection. Basically, everything that occurs during pregnancy is being “downloaded” to the fetal tissue, but then what happens for the first 12 years of a child’s life after the umbilical cord is cut?
We see that from birth through age six, the most influential perception programming of the subconscious mind occurs, as the child learns complex motor programs for speech and all the physical activity babies perform as they download massive amounts of information about the world. These programs, which they acquire by age six, are shaping their character in the present and for the future. They are in the act of being and becoming, simultaneously.
Keeping all this in mind, let’s connect the dots to a blog by Jon Barron, who posted this intriguing piece to his Baseline of Health Foundation’s website entitled “Children Inherit the Taste for Junk Food.”
Barron reminds us of the “biblical quote that says that the sins of the parents shall be visited upon their children — even unto the third and fourth generation.” If we continue to connect our dots up to a study done between 1932 and 1942 conducted by Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., MD which came to be known as The Pottenger Cat Study, we find that the importance of raw food vs. cooked food over multiple generations itself was clearly demonstrated in this 10 year feeding study, as it became evident that cats fed diets that included any cooked meat food could not reproduce by the third generation — a perfect example of passing dietary sins along the generational lines until the lines died out.
Rat chow or junk food and sweets?
Barron also references another animal study, conducted in Britain and reported by the BBC, that found that a mother’s diet during pregnancy, and even when breastfeeding, can affect her unborn child’s taste for foods.
The female rats used in this research were either given a so called balanced diet of “rat chow” – which was unappealing to the rats and of course what the researchers deemed as a reasonably healthy diet vs. access to as many donuts, biscuits (cookies), muffins, sweets and “crisps” (potato chips) as they could consume.
According to the BBC article:
“This diet was continued in some rats up to birth, and then during the breastfeeding period until weaning. Unsurprisingly, the rats given free rein to eat sweets consumed more food overall. Significantly, however, their babies showed marked differences in behavior compared with the offspring of chow-fed rats.
The young rats were split into different groups – some of those from chow-fed mothers given nothing but their chow to eat, while the babies of junk-fed mothers, and the rest from chow-fed mothers, were given a mixture of chow and junk food to see which they chose.
Those in the chow-only group consumed the least food, while those from healthy-eating mothers given junk food again were tempted to eat more. However, the final group of babies of the junk-food mothers were given the option of an unhealthy diet and they ate the most food, eating nine days worth of food for every seven days worth consumed by the other babies on the junk food or chow menu. They ate roughly twice as much as those on the chow-only diets. The article is well worth the read because as usual it kicks up the healthy diet controversy as well, not to mention the despicable use of animals for testing in these types of studies.
The researchers suggested that the ‘pleasure chemicals’ released by the mother when eating fatty foods might have an effect on the developing brain of the fetus.”
Or, as Barron put it, “mothers-to-be who gorge on junk food are more likely to give birth to a child with a sweet tooth, a love of fats, and a craving for salt.” We might expand on this statement by suggesting that if a particular diet can produce a love of the wrong fats, sweets, and salty foods, the opposite could produce a love of good food that includes healthy fats, sweets from fresh fruits, and natural salt. It stands to reason that a mother-to-be that makes healthy choices will give birth to a baby who might be prone to make healthier choices him- or herself, based on the information that was gained during the gestation period and what the mother ate during her pregnancy (this hypothesis is strictly this author’s opinion.)
It is clear from this study that epigenetics are at play here because the foods that a pregnant mother-to-be eats during her pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding have an impact on the development of those parts of the brain that control appetite. The study is clearly on the right path in pointing out that if you expose a child to junk foods in the womb or through their mother’s milk, then their brain will become hardwired so that they are more likely to eat junk food themselves, with a particular fondness for treats high in the wrong fat, wrong sugars, and wrong salt. This animal study has just scratched the surface of all the possibilities that the study of epigenetics offers.
As Dr. Stephanie Bayol, one of the researchers in the rat study, said: “Our study has shown that eating large quantities of junk food when pregnant and breastfeeding could impair the normal control of appetite and promote an exacerbated taste for junk food in offspring. This could send the offspring on the road to obesity and make the task of teaching healthy eating habits in children even more challenging.”
We can certainly see just how important the role of the birth mother is, with the information gleaned from Sue Gerhardt’s book that tells us clearly that a baby’s personality is 50 percent formed at the time of his birth. This knowledge is of enormous significance. Because, while in the womb, during breastfeeding and during those early growth years, young children are just like little tape recorders, recording all that they experience.
Pregnancy, nursing and motherhood is an empowering responsibility that requires a woman’s full awareness as to the fact that the dietary and lifestyle choices she makes, the feelings and emotions she experiences will have a direct and profound effect on who and what type of adult that child ultimately becomes.