Can Children Inherit Cravings for Junk Food?

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.

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Kamia T.
Kamia T.3 months ago

I'm not sure that all addictions are completely genetic, but the tendency to crave certain foods based on your body metabolism and hormones may be, and I KNOW that my poor eating habits when young translated over to my kids. We all had to learn how to eat better together.

Ivy W.
Ivy W.3 years ago

I don't see why this is a novel idea. We already know that babies taste what the mothers eat as they start swallowing in the womb to practice eating when they are born. I know this article has truth behind it as my daughter loves everything I ate during my pregnancy with her. She loves the healthy and not so healthy foods. My duaghter was born overweight, but she's was an underweight baby and toddler after a week of breastfeeding. So, babies born from Mother's who are overweight doesn't mean the child will grow up that way.

My daughter is practically a vegetarian and if she was given a choice, she would only eat fruit and vegetables with occassional bit of cheese and milk. I know my diet while pregnant has effected her and I think it's a good thing. Ok her love of Doritos isn't the healthiest, but I do not give them as a choice except for a once awhile treat. It's up to the parents how they feed their child and whether they only follow the child's preference.

Dale Overall

Intriguing. Mom's often get blamed for anything and everything. If she made you eat veggies she was controlling, if she scolded you then some doctors said that it would cause autism. If she sneezed she could contaminate me or if she were educated she might pass on her knowledge. Back in the days when she was pregnant foods were far less processed and very tasty, so she can be thanked for my love of cooking from scratch and my love of organic meats, poultry, veggies and anything else not slathered in pesticides!

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

I wanted strawberries and tomatoes when I was pregnant with my son. His favorite foods? Fruit and anything tomato based.

@ Ann R - women who become gestationally diabetic can have over weight babies and still have eaten appropriately. Why don't you ask an OB/GYN instead, since this type of doctor would better know how the pregnancy and eating habits are causing for the fetus? The pediatrician sees them AFTER the baby is born, not during pregnancy.

Lauren E.
Lauren E.3 years ago

Epigenetics is fascinating. The habits you take up now could be passed down to your kids... Probably a good idea for me to start breaking some nasty habits sooner than later, then! xD

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy3 years ago

I dont think so....I was not raised in the junk food generation...but very late in life after my kids were grown I started junk food...not much but junk food.

Marie W.
Marie W.3 years ago


Anne R.
Anne R.3 years ago

The Bible scripture you used to make a point was taken out of context.
It is actually part of the Ten Commandments, and it is about worshiping
the real God and not false gods.It is from Exodus 20

And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or
on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or
worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for
the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,
6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep
my commandments.

Anne R.
Anne R.3 years ago

A good friend of mine is a pediatrician, she told me that overweight babies
are usually the products of mothers that ate junk food,or too much food during
their pregnancies.That the parents could be obese,but the baby should be born
of average weight,if the mother eats right and healthy.
The biggest danger of eating junk, like sweets all the time, is giving birth to a diabetic
baby. Average weight for a baby is 5.6 to 8.2lbs. If a child is over 9 lbs that is not
healthy,and every ounce over 9,gives your baby a higher risk of developing diabetes
in his childhood.She also said babies are sometimes too small, because the mother doesn't
eat enough. But she said that babies aren't born with the bad habits of a parent,
though sometimes it appears that way. It's a learned behavior from bad eating habits after
birth. You are going to eat what you are given, if you are breastfed,and you mother eats
junk, it will be in her milk, and if she spoons feeds you junk, you will not know any better.
and eat it. She said that babies are born all different sizes for many different reasons.
But sometimes the baby is born the size he is, weather too big or too small is because of
poor nutrition. If it was poor during pregnancy, it will probably continue that way after
birth.She does not believe babies are born addicted to junkfood. But she does believe they
learn to be this way after birth by their parents.

The Bible scripture you used to make a point was taken out

Kelly Rogers3 years ago

You know I heard that all three of my pregnancies. I do not know if that is true though I just heard it .