The difference between what the rich and poor eat in America begins long before a baby can walk, or even crawl.
A team of researchers at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences found considerable differences in the solid foods babies from different socioeconomic classes are fed. Specifically, diets high in sugar and fat were found to be associated with less-educated mothers and poorer households, while diets that more closely followed infant feeding guidelines were linked to higher education and bigger bank accounts.
“We found that differences in dietary habits start very early,” said Xiaozhong Wen, the study’s lead author.
The researchers used data from the Infant Feeding Practices study, which tracked the diets of more than 1,500 infants until age 1 and documented which of 18 food types — including breast milk, formula, cow’s milk, other milk (such as soy milk), other dairy foods (such as yogurt), other soy foods (such as tofu), 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, and sweet drinks — they were fed. Wen’s team focused on what the infants ate over the course of a week at both 6 and 12 months old.
In many cases, infants were fed foods that would surprise even the least stringent of mothers. Candy, ice cream, soda and french fries were among the foods some were fed. Researchers divided the 18 food types into four categories, two of which — “formula” and “infant guideline solids” — are considered ideal for infant consumption and two of which — “high/sugar/fat/protein” and “high/regular cereal” — are not. It became clear which babies tended to be fed appropriately and which didn’t.
“The extent to which lower socioeconomic classes (i.e., low household income, low maternal education) are associated with unhealthy infant dietary patterns is substantial,” Wen said.
The immediate danger resulting from poor infant diets is early weight gain and stunted growth. Larger weight increases were observed in the infants who consumed higher levels of fat and sugar and dairy foods (both of which were associated with poorer households and less-educated mothers), especially at age 1. On average, those same babies were found to be shorter — possibly, the researchers say, because of a lack of foods that promote proper bone growth.
The longer-term problem with the discrepancy in infant dietary patterns is that these differences — specifically the exposure to certain unhealthful foods and lack of exposure to certain other healthful ones — can negatively effect a child’s long-term health, eating habits and food preferences.
A follow-up to the Infant Feeding Practices study that analyzed data for the same children at age 6 found infant feeding patterns appear to translate into similar childhood eating habits. And those preferences can last a lifetime.
“If you tend to offer healthy foods, even those with a somewhat bitter taste to infants, such as pureed vegetables, they will develop a liking for them. But if you always offer sweet or fatty foods, infants will develop a strong preference for them or even an addiction to them,” Wen said in the statement.
‘A critical period’
Such discrepancies appear to be the result of a number of factors.
For one, lower education levels are probably tied to poorer awareness of proper nutrition and infant feeding practices. If parents don’t have a proper understanding of what infants should be eating and how important proper nutrition is for a child’s short- and long-term health, it’s hard to expect them to choose more healthful foods when less healthful ones might be more convenient.
Price also could be a leading factor. The researchers note that the reason lower-income households are more likely to feed their infants foods that are high in sugar and fat might simply be because those items are relatively inexpensive.
The gap between what the poor and rich feed their babies is an extension of a growing systemic problem in the Unites States. The tentacles of income inequality find their way into many different aspects of life, and food is a particularly apt example. Food inequality, whereby America’s wealthiest people eat well while the country’s poorest eat poorly, is not only real but is worsening.
“Infancy is a critical period to learn various food tastes,” said Wen. “Parents should take advantage of this period (when they have high control of what their infant can eat) to develop a life-long preference for healthier foods.”