New research has pinpointed two critical windows in a child’s life when exposure to junk food is most harmful, especially for girls.
The latest work is based on earlier findings from researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia that found that mothers who eat junk food while pregnant are programming their babies to be addicted to a high fat, high sugar diet by the time they are weaned.
Their latest laboratory studies reveal there may be a chance to turn around this junk food addiction in two critical windows — one in late pregnancy and another in adolescence.
“Our research suggests that too much junk food consumed late in pregnancy for humans has the potential to be more harmful to the child than excess junk food early in the pregnancy,” said Dr. Jessica Gugusheff, a post-doctoral researcher in the university’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.
“Importantly, it also indicates that if excess junk food was consumed by the mother in those early stages of pregnancy, there may be a chance to reduce those negative effects on the baby by eating a healthy diet in late pregnancy,” she continued.
“The second critical window is adolescence and we’ve found differences between males and females. Our experiments showed that eating a healthy diet during adolescence could reverse the junk-food preference in males, but not females.”
A preference for junk food is believed to result from a desensitization of the normal reward system — the opioid and dopamine signalling pathway — fuelled by high fat, high sugar diets. Children with less sensitive reward systems need more fat and sugar to get the same “good feeling,” the researchers explain.
“This brain area grows at its fastest during these critical windows and is therefore most susceptible to alteration at these times,” said project leader Dr. Beverly Mühlhäusler, a senior research fellow with the university’s FOODplus Research Centre.
The researchers believe their work will ultimately help pregnant women be better informed about the lasting effect their diet has on the development of their child’s life-long food preferences.
“It will help mothers to make better, more informed, decisions about their diet choices by narrowing down the window of when exposure to a bad diet is most harmful to the child,” Mühlhäusler said. “It will also enable us to target dietary interventions to times in development when they will be most beneficial.”
Source: University of Adelaide