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Want to Raise a Fruit-and-Veggie Lover? Be Persistent

Offering your baby healthy foods early and often works, research suggests

MONDAY, Dec. 3 (HealthDay News) -- If you want your baby to love fruits and veggies later in life, offer plenty of opportunities to try both as you introduce your infant to solid foods, new research suggests.

And mom, eat plenty of fruits and veggies while you're pregnant and breast-feeding so you'll help to pass on the preference for these healthy foods.

Those are the findings of a new study published in the December issue of Pediatrics.

Repeated exposure to fruits and vegetables in infancy is key, said study senior author Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist and member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "They need to taste them to learn to like them."

And that face that babies can make the first time they taste a new food? Don't focus on it, Mennella suggested. "Even though they make these grimaces, when you offered the spoon again, the baby kept on eating," she said of her tiny study participants.

That grimace, she suspects, is innate and not a sign the baby hates the food and won't try it again.

For the study, Mennella and her co-author wanted to focus on how babies develop preferences for foods. They observed 45 infants, ranging in age from 4 months to 8 months, who had all been weaned to cereal but had very little experience eating fruits and vegetables. None had eaten green beans and only one had tried peaches, which were the two foods studied.

The infants were divided into two groups: One group got green beans at home for eight consecutive days, while the other got green beans and then peaches at home over the same eight days. The infants were also observed for acceptance of the foods for two days before the home test and two days afterward, at the Monell center.

The researchers also measured how much the babies ate and asked the mothers about their own eating habits during pregnancy and afterward. Twenty of the 45 new mothers were breast-feeding.

During the initial exposure, the babies ate more calories from peaches than green beans -- about 200 calories compared to just 74. And as they ate, most squinted, furrowed their brow or curled their upper lip.

"When we looked at the first time these babies ate green beans and peaches, the breast-fed babies ate more of the peaches [than the formula-fed infants] and made less negative faces when they ate them," Mennella said.

Then the researchers looked at the diet records of the mothers. "These lactating mothers ate more fruits in general," Mennella said. "The most likely reason why the breast-fed babies ate more peaches is, they were already familiar with the flavor."

No differences in green bean preferences were found between infants who were breast-fed or bottle-fed. When Mennella looked at the diet report, she found both formula-feeding and breast-feeding mothers ate fewer green beans than recommended.

After the eight days of initial testing, all the babies ate more green beans. The green bean consumption rose from about 2 ounces per serving to more than 3 ounces.

Why didn't peach consumption rise? "They ate the peaches after the green beans," she said. "So they were full."

So breast-feeding does boost the chance a baby will like a first taste of food, but only if mother ate similar-tasting foods, Mennella said.

Mennella's advice: "Eat the fruits and vegetables you enjoy while you are pregnant and lactating, because your baby is going to be learning about those foods. Whether you are breast-feeding or formula-feeding, once you start introducing a food, make sure you offer your baby opportunities to eat fruits and vegetables. They need to taste them to learn to like them."

Two dietitians said the study results make sense, and add to other research that has arrived at the same conclusion.

"The more variety a breast-feeding mother has in her diet, the more the infant is likely to accept a wide variety of foods," said Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "The flavor of breast milk may change depending on what the mother is eating. The breast-fed infant is then more accustomed to new flavors than a formula-fed infant. This could enhance their likelihood of trying and accepting new foods or flavors."

Other research has also shown that infants are likely to accept a food after it has been offered several times, Sandon said. "So at first if you don't succeed, try, try again," she advised.

Connie Diekman, president of the American Dietetic Association and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the study results provide practical information for new parents.

"The fact that the best way to develop a taste for something is through multiple taste tests is something most parents don't know. I'd encourage parents to try small amount of new foods, offer with encouragement, and re-offer for at least a week before deciding if the baby likes it or not," she said.

In another study published in the same issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that allergic peanut reactions are occurring at earlier ages. They compared medical data of children treated for peanut allergies at a Duke University clinic between July 2000 and April 2006 with those of a similar population between 1995 and 1997. During the earlier period, the median ages for the first exposure and reaction were 22 and 24 months, respectively. During the later period it was 14 and 18 months, respectively.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children avoid peanut exposure during the first three years of life, especially if there is a family history of allergy.

More information

To learn more about breast-feeding, visit the La Leche League International.

SOURCES: Julie A. Mennella, Ph.D., biopsychologist and member, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia; Lona Sandon, R.D., assistant professor, clinical nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; Connie Diekman, M.Ed., R.D., L.D., director, university nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis; December 2007 Pediatrics

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