The latest in research completed by the University of Adelaide, published in The FASEB Journal, suggests that moms-to-be who eat junk food during their pregnancies have already programmed their babies to be addicted to a high fat, high sugar diet by the time they are weaned.
The research, led by Bev Mühlhäusler, PhD, is the first to show the effects of maternal junk food consumption at such an early age of a child's life. Researchers found from laboratory studies that a junk food diet during pregnancy and lactation desensitized the normal reward system fueled by these highly palatable foods.
From the studies, researchers found that children born to a mother who ate a diet dominated by junk food were less sensitive to the "feel good" hormone opioids. Opiods are produced by the body as a reward response (and is released in responds to fat and sugar). Dr. Mühlhäusler said of the research that, "We ound that the opioid signalling pathway (the reward pathway) in these offspring was less sensitive than those whose mothers were eating a standard diet."
The findings led researchers to conclude that kids born to a mother who ate a diet dominated by junk foods would need to eat more fat and sugar to get the same good feeling, thus increasing their preference for junk food. The need for the "feel good hormone" would also cause children to overeat.
Mühlhäusler said, "In the same way that someone addicted to opioid drugs has to consume more of the drug over time to achieve the same 'high', continually producing excess opioids by eating too much junk food results in the need to consume more foods full of fat and sugar to get the same pleasurable sensation." She also warned that, "Mothers eating a lot of junk food while pregnant are setting up their children to be addicted."
Mühlhäusler believes in the importance of understanding the effects of the maternal diet at a very early stage in the child's life, to see which bodily systems could be targeted to reverse the problem for children. But after consulting the findings from further studies, the work has suggested that the alterations to the opioid receptors are permanent.
"Although our research shows that many of the long-term health problems associated with maternal junk food diets can be avoided if offspring carefully follow a healthy diet after weaning," Mühlhäusler said, "they are always going to have a predisposition for over-consumption of junk food and obesity. It's going to make it much more difficult for them to maintain a healthy body weight."
But Mühlhäusler affirms that the results of the study are meant to inform, and not scare, moms-to-be and breastfeeding mothers. While there are plenty of healthy options out there, it's important to recognize what to eat and why moms-to-be should opt for these foods. She said, "The take-home message for women is that eating large amounts of junk food during pregnancy and while breastfeeding will have long-term consequences for their child's preference for these foods, which will ultimately have negative effects on their health."