I’m about six months pregnant with my husband’s and my first child, a wee thing of unknown gender and much kicking that we’ve taken to affectionately calling “The Colonel.” Amid all the voracious reading that modern moms like me seem compelled to do, I was intrigued to see the results of a study from the University of Colorado School of Medicine indicating what I eat during these nine months of magical gestation may directly affect The Colonel’s openness to eating various foods. As I sit down to dinner every night, am I setting myself up for a picky eater, or will my kid be just as happy to try Brussels sprouts as pancakes (shaped like Mickey Mouse, per my husband’s big plans)? This research may have the answer.
In the two-year study led by Josephine Todrank, PhD, researchers studied mice and found that the pups’ sense of smell was shaped and altered by what the mommy mice ate and drank during gestation. They found significant changes in the structure of the brain’s olfactory glomeruli, as odors in the amniotic fluid directly affect how this smell-processing system develops. The changes were also found to extend to early life outside the womb, where the newborn was exposed to flavors and aromas in the mother’s milk.
Todrank executed the study by feeding one group of pregnant and nursing mice a bland diet, and another group a more flavorful diet. Once the pups were weaned, the ones from the moms with the flavored diet had significantly larger glomeruli than those whose moms ate bland food. They also were shown to prefer the same specific flavors their mothers ate, while the others showed no preference.
“Exposure to odor or flavor in the womb elicits the preference but also shapes the brain development,” said Todrank. “From the fetus’ point of view, whatever is in the womb is considered ‘good.’ If your mother ate it and survived to give birth to you then it was probably safe.” This is, in practical application, a good strategy for mice foraging for food — if Mom ate it, I should be able to eat it, too. These days, we humans generally don’t have quite the same issues with foraging and food safety as most mice, but, as Todrank asserts, due to mammalian similarities in how we develop, there’s no reason to think experiments would produce different results in humans.
“What an expectant mother chooses to eat and drink has long-term effects — for better or worse — on her child’s sensory anatomy as well as his or her odor memory and food preferences in the future,” Todrank said. “It is not yet clear how long these changes and preferences last, but we are currently investigating that question.”
So, all my pregnant ladies out there, if you eat a varied, whole-foods diet during pregnancy, thick with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc., it seems you may be setting yourself up for a more agreeable eater, and who wouldn’t want that? Fewer tantrums at the table when the broccoli comes out? Sign me up! A child who doesn’t exclusively want chicken nuggets or hot dogs? Yes, please!
But the positive effects aren’t just in avoiding picky eating; there’s also evidence this research could have important public health implications. “Many diseases plaguing society involve excess consumption or avoidance of certain kinds of foods,” said Diego Restrepo, PhD, co-director of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and sponsor of Todrank’s study. “Understanding the factors that determine choice and ingestion, particularly the early factors, is important in designing strategies to enhance the health of the infant, child and adult.”
This obviously underscores the importance of things like avoiding alcohol during pregnancy — besides the immediate health implications of known effects like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, would you really want your child growing up ingrained at a basic level with the idea that alcohol is a “safe” food? I sure don’t. The Colonel is probably going to discover alcohol far earlier than I’m comfortable with, anyways. More importantly, however, this research indicates that moms could directly and significantly affect their child’s long-term health prospects by influencing how their child feels about lean versus fatty meats, fruits and vegetables versus sugary snacks and potato chips, whole grains versus processed white flour, etc.
So, fellow moms-to-be, it’s quite a powerful influence stick we appear to wield. And, the best part is, we’ve got a captive audience for these precious months before our little tenants make their appearances. It’s just a matter of us making good food choices, and tempering those little ice cream binges with meals overflowing with nutritious and healthy stuff. Hey, even if the research proves not to hold true for our little bundles of joy, and they scream bloody murder at a green pepper despite our frequent consumption of them during pregnancy, can anyone argue that making the effort to eat a little better is a bad thing? Seems like a win-win to me.
- Todrank J, Heth G, & Restrepo D (2010). Effects of in utero odorant exposure on neuroanatomical development of the olfactory bulb and odour preferences. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 21123261
- Pregnant Mother’s Diet Impacts Infant’s Sense of Smell, Alters Brain Development. ScienceDaily. December 6, 2010.