Study: Children’s Eating Habits Form During First Year

A new study published in Pediatrics suggests that dietary habits are formed in infancy.

“Our early taste preferences, particularly for fruits and vegetables, and on the flip side for sugary beverages, are lasting,” said Dr. Elsie M. Taveras, chief of the division of general pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, who was not involved in the new research.  “These studies are suggesting that in terms of diet quality, the die might be cast in the first year,” she added.

In a series of 11 studies funded by the CDC and the FDC, investigators kept track of the diets of about 1,500 6-year-olds and compared them to those followed from infancy to age 1.  While it was previous known that taste preferences first appear in infancy, little was known concerning how those preferences appeared in later years.

As it turns out, “when infants had infrequent consumption of fruits and vegetables, they also had infrequent consumption at 6,” said Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist at the CDC and the senior author of a few of the new studies.

Scanlon discovered that children who were introduced to fruits and vegetables between 10 months and 1 year did the best with eating them later on in life.

The study accounted for factors such as race, family income and breastfeeding.  Other factors such as a child’s fear or new foods, could also come into play.  However, Catherine A. Forestell, an associate professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary, said it is important for parents “not to be deterred by an initial negative response,” and that there is “an importance of the early experience.”

In a 2007 study completed by Forestell, infants were offered green beans for the first time.  Many of them wrinkled their noses at the vegetable at first, but after parent persistence, they willingly opened their mouths for more.

Breast-fed infants were found to be more willing to try new foods than their formula-fed counterparts.  The recent study from the CDC discovered breast-fed infants to be more likely to drink water and eat fruits and vegetables at age 6, concluding that breast-feeding may in fact lead to an “improved child diet.”

A separate study found that infants who were exposed to sugary beverages were twice as likely to drink them on a daily basis by age 6.  A third study concluded that babies who consumed sugary beverages three times a week around 10 months to 1 year were more than twice as likely to be obese by age 6 as those infants who did not consume the beverages.

Parents can change their child’s diet, but children are much more likely to sample healthy foods when they see adults trying them too.  “It’s not just changing your children’s diet,” Forestell said. “It’s changing the whole family’s, and that’s the kicker, isn’t it?”