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FAQs

Brain Development

GF FAQ Image Brain Development

Can training healthy eating habits really help prevent lifelong obesity?

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Absolutely! We now know that eating habits and relationships with food developed prior to your child’s 2nd birthday are likely to be what he carries through into adulthood. So a diet laden with deep-fried food and sugary beverages, and eaten in excess (overriding fullness cues), especially to overcome boredom or emotional needs rather than hunger, can and does result in significantly higher rates of weight-related issues. 

Conversely, healthy eating habits developed before his 2nd birthday can and do remain with him for life! Learning what is healthy, how to develop and enjoy preferences for these foods, when to respond to cues of fullness to promote appetite regulation, and why to not offer foods as rewards and/or for anything other than hunger, are all imperative. Guiding your child through these skills will ensure he has the start in life he deserves. [12, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, 52, 60, 69, 85]

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Is eating healthy a learnt or inherited behaviour?

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Establishing healthy eating habits is a learnt behaviour, just like learning to read. We don’t just pick up a book and instantly know how to make sense of the symbols on the page. We start with letters, then words, and then eventually string them together to form sentences. It’s the same with eating. Start with natural foods, encourage plenty of practice and repetition, offer variety and complexity, and the result is a healthy equation of vegetables, wholegrains and fruit, and habits and preferences that are with us for life. [30, 50, 58, 60, 70] 

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What is meant by ‘window of opportunity’?

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We know that babies are born with an ingrained preference for sweet and salty. However, the start of complementary feeding is a very sensitive and malleable period in an infant’s development. With the right exposure and experiences to a wide variety of healthy foods, he can and will develop lifelong healthy food preferences. Unfortunately, this also means that if an infant’s first exposures are limited to sugary processed foods, these can also enhance a lifelong preference to these foods. It is therefore important for caregivers to capitalize on this window of opportunity to introduce a wide variety of healthy nutritious foods and build healthy preferences. [4, 11, 14, 42, 50, 86] A spoonful is all that is required as this is about exposure to different tastes, not nutrition or to satisfy hunger (that is the role of milk in this early phase). [5, 13] The focus is very much on taste experiences and building the foundations for healthy preferences. 

It is also a huge advantage that by the time that solids do play an important role for nutritional requirements [14] (somewhere between 6 and 7 months), he has a good grasp and preference for these foods. If all he has been exposed to up until this point is sweet fruit and infant cereal you are more likely going to struggle to transition to healthier, more nutrient-dense alternatives. 

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How do I ensure his emotional needs are being met?

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Trying something new is a challenge, even something as simple as eating. Like anything else new in their world, they will be looking to you for guidance and emotional support. They need to feel comfortable, familiar, and safe, in order to accept the new challenge and make it a happy experience. Therefore: 

  • The atmosphere throughout his sensory journey of moving to solids is essential to feeling secure and confident to try new things.[91] Setting up positive healthy relationships with food can never start too early. If he associates food with stress and frustration, this not only has an impact on what he eats now but also into the future. These formative stages set the foundations for healthy relationships and preferences for life. 
  • Eat with him. Eating is a social experience, and for babies this is no different. It offers them a sense of connectedness and belonging. Eventually you will be able to integrate him into the family meal, but for now, sit down with him, preferably at eye level, and share a meal with him. [92] Your social interactions with him during mealtimes all contribute to future acceptances of various flavors and textures. So keep it stress-free, positive and as enjoyable as possible, take his lead [36], and offer plenty of praise!
  • Choose a time/day/week when you are both free from further challenges or disruptions, e.g. starting a new day care, outings, visitors, disruptions to sleep patterns. [2]
  • Choose a time of day when you both are well rested and have plenty of time to enjoy these new experiences, i.e. don’t be in a rush.
  • Choose a time of day when he is not overly hungry. In these early stages they do not yet associate solids with satisfying hunger. Rather, look at this as another form of play and exploration. [44] 
  • Don’t make a fuss. If it didn’t go as well as you anticipated, such as he didn’t want a bar of it, got distracted or upset, that’s OK and all completely normal! Riding a bike with no training wheels was the same, right? The most important thing is to not make a fuss and try again some other time. 
  • Get messy! He will spit most of these first foods out. He will want to try and grab the spoon or hold onto his own. He will want to play with his food. Eating involves touch, sight, smell, and even sound. [44] Engaging these senses is a critical part of learning to eat, learning about food, and even triggering the digestive process. Start this learning process early. Try offering the real deal alongside the puree you are offering. For example, if offering a carrot puree, have a whole carrot for him to hold. 

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What’s best to feed beyond 6 months old?

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Nutrient-filled spoonfuls of flavor! As he approaches 6 to 7 months his nutritional demands to support and optimize healthy growth and development are high, and are no longer able to be met by his milk feeds [14]. However, his tummy is still very small so it is important not to fill it up with nutritionally ‘empty’ foods. Most of us interpret malnutrition to be ‘not enough food’ and a Third-World problem. But malnutrition is rife right here in our ‘land of plenty,’ as children are not ingesting food with the best nutrients. Even at a healthy weight (and indeed overweight), an individual can suffer from malnutrition if their diet is limited to a select handful of foods, or the wrong foods (often at the expense of nutrient-dense foods [23] and milk feeds). It is therefore important to consider all his nutritional needs, now and going forward, not only in terms of flavor, but also composition.

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What does a baby need from solids to optimize growth and development?

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By 6 to 7 months, his nutritional needs can no longer be filled by milk alone and the inclusion of nutrient-dense foods [23] is a must. It becomes hugely apparent that capitalizing on the window between 5 and 6 months [5] to prime his palate with a wide variety of healthy savory flavors pays dividends. To be able to hit the ground running at 6 to 7 months with him already accepting these nutritious foods will ensure his nutrient needs to optimize growth and development are met. Adequate nutrition to optimize growth and development will not come from apple puree and infant cereal [11]! Although milk remains an important component of his diet, so do nutrient-rich foods, high in iron [24] and zinc, and balanced in good sources of fats [51], proteins [26], and carbohydrates [27].

  • Vegetables [11] Vegetables are the most amazing whole food group. They are packed full of essential nutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even some fat, and provide the perfect slow release of energy. Instilling a preference for these powerhouses is one of the most fantastic gifts you can give to your child in terms of future health and wellbeing. 
  • Iron-rich foods [24] Infants are born with enough iron stores to see them through the first 6 months of life. Then, due to their rapid growth and development and very high iron requirements (a 6- to 24-month-old has a greater iron requirement per kilogram of body weight than any other time in their life), they must start receiving good sources of readily available iron from the foods they eat. Sufficient dietary iron is required to ensure proper weight gain, appetite, energy levels, a healthy immune system, and is essential for optimizing cognitive and behavioral development. Unfortunately, not all iron sources are created equally. The best sources of iron are the natural ones, in particular meat, eggs, and pulses. Although infant cereals claim to be good sources of iron, in reality, it is poorly absorbed. 
  • Fats [51] Babies need fat! Not only is it an important energy source, but it is also essential for optimal brain development, building strong immune systems, and the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins. Yet, the sad fact is, most infant diets consist of watery cereals and fruit purees, which are very high in carbohydrates and devoid of any fat at all. So don’t be afraid of giving him healthy fat (fats that haven’t been artificially made or altered). It is, and should be their primary fuel source and is vital for metabolic health, now, and the future.
  • Good sources of proteins and carbohydrates [26, 27] Although both essential for overall health, they must be in balance. A diet too high in protein has shown a tendency for a more rapid weight gain (and propensity to obesity), and a diet too reliant on carbohydrates as the dominant energy source can be nutrient-poor, especially if they are highly refined or over-processed.

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What is needed for optimizing brain development?

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Although a newborn’s brain is only one quarter of the size of an adult’s, it grows to about 80% by age 3 and reaches 90% of an adult brain size by age 5. In order for this growth and development to be optimized it must be supplied with the appropriate nutrition. The brain dominates the body’s metabolism in early life, consuming two-thirds of all calories his body uses at rest. His brain is growing faster than any other time in his life, and optimal nutrition is required to support this rapid growth and development [73]. A diet rich in iron [24] and good fats [51], will ensure the best foundation for cognitive abilities, motor skills, and socio-emotional development.

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Is fat good for my baby?

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Healthy fats are an essential part of a healthy diet for babies. In fact, 40 to 50% of their energy intake should be coming from a good source [68]. Fats are needed to support optimal brain development, build strong immune systems, and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Healthy sources include red meat, chicken, fish (especially oily species such as salmon), avocado, olive/coconut oil, bone broth, and cheese (from 8 months). Fat also provides an important function with the mouth feel, texture, and flavor of food, reinforcing the positive messaging with these foods.

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Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.