Ask Dr. Sears: Shaping Young Tastes

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Ask Dr. Sears: Shaping Young Tastes

Q. Is it okay to give my 13-month-old sugar-free foods, such as Jell-O?

A. Children are born with a sweet tooth. Most fresh foods have a natural sweet taste and even mother’s milk is very sweet. But the diet you choose for your child now will make a big difference on the choices she makes through her life. If your child grows up eating food from mom’s kitchen, she will learn that this is what normal food is supposed to taste like. But a child who grows up with a diet composed of a lot of processed foods learns to believe that artificial tastes are the norm. During the first three years of life you have a window of opportunity to shape your child’s tastes in a way that could affect her health for years to come.

In my pediatric practice there is a group of mothers who taught me a lot about the importance of shaping young tastes. I’ve dubbed them “pure moms,” because they only feed their children pure, natural foods during the early years. They feed them only freshly prepared fruits and vegetables, with a minimum of canned and jarred foods, and never let a morsel of packaged foods enter the mouths of their toddlers. I used to think they were overreacting a bit, until I realized that their children were much healthier. These children had fewer office visits and colds. When they did get sick, they got better faster because their immunity was so much stronger. Not only that, but these children also seemed to grow up better behaved and got tagged with fewer learning problems, such as A.D.D.

These children generally have a much lower incidence of obesity. When they go out into the wild world of sugar-coated and fat-filled birthday parties and fast-food outlets, a rare thing happens. They will try junk foods, but not overdose on them. That’s a crucial difference with most other children I see. These kids will even tell you that junk food makes them “feel yucky.” The reason is they’ve been raised to make the mental connection “When I eat good, I feel good.”

If you think that this seems too extreme, consider this: The food industry is trying to shape your children’s tastes in the opposite direction. While you are trying to teach healthy eating habits, advertisers are trying to convince kids that they need junk food. And, the chemists in the laboratories of processed food makers are masters at shaping children’s tastes toward preferring the artificial tastes of processed foods. “Sugar-free” foods are almost always loaded with artificial sweeteners — not to mention the artificial colorings, salt, and other additives. It’s all designed to influence the child to overeat processed foods.

So, I recommend you avoid getting your toddler hooked on canned and artificial tastes. If your toddler eats mostly homemade, freshly-prepared, unsalted, and unsweetened foods, this becomes the standard to which other foods are compared. Eventually, the canned and packaged stuff will be foreign to her selective taste buds. One of the greatest health gifts you can give your child is the desire for fresh foods and a distaste for processed foods.