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Xiaozhong Wen, MBBS, PhD

“We found that differences in dietary habits start very early,” says Xiaozhong Wen, MBBS, PhD, who studies how and why obesity develops in infants and young children.

Dietary Patterns Start in Infancy, Depend on Socioeconomic Factors

Published November 25, 2014

University at Buffalo researchers have found that the dietary patterns of American infants at 6 months and 1 year vary according to their mothers’ racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds.

“There is substantial research to suggest that if you consistently offer foods with a particular taste to infants, they will show a preference for these foods later in life.”
Xiaozhong Wen, MBBS, PhD
Assistant professor of pediatrics

Xiaozhong Wen, MBBS, PhD, lead author of the study, published in Pediatrics, describes the first year of life as “a critical period for the development of taste preferences and the establishment of eating habits.”

The assistant professor of pediatrics conducts research in the Division of Behavioral Medicine.

Diet Associated With Mothers’ Education, Income

In the study, babies whose dietary patterns were high in sugar, fat and protein; dairy foods; or regular cereals were associated with mothers whose highest education level was some or all of high school. 

Generally, these mothers had household incomes of under $25,000 per year and were non-Hispanic African-Americans.

Some of the unhealthy foods included items such as candy, ice cream, sweet drinks and French fries.

Babies whose diets included more breastfeeding and solid foods that adhere to infant guidelines from international and pediatric organizations were associated with household incomes of generally above $60,000 per year. These mothers had higher education levels ranging from some college to post-graduate education.

Babies who consumed larger amounts of formula — indicating little or no breastfeeding — were associated with being born through emergency caesarean section.

They also were associated with receiving assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women and Infant Children (WIC). Wen notes that one possible reason for high formula consumption in this group is that WIC provides financial support for formula purchases.

Infants Develop Preference for First Foods They Eat

“There is substantial research to suggest that if you consistently offer foods with a particular taste to infants, they will show a preference for these foods later in life,” says Wen.

“So if you tend to offer infants healthy foods, even those with a somewhat bitter taste, such as pureed vegetables, they will develop a liking for them. But if you always offer sweet or fatty foods, infants will develop a stronger preference for them or even an addiction to them.”

Studying the first solid foods that babies eat can provide insight into whether they will develop obesity later on, says Wen.

“This is both an opportunity and a challenge,” Wen notes. “We have an opportunity to start making dietary changes at the very beginning of life.”

More Fat, Sugar, Protein May Slow Bone Growth

The researchers also found that babies whose diets consisted mainly of foods with high fat, sugar and protein were associated with a slower gain in length-for-age scores from 6 to 12 months.

“We’re not sure why this happens,” says Wen. “It’s possible that some foods that are high in sugar, fat or protein are so palatable they end up dominating the baby’s diet, replacing more nutritious foods that could be higher in calcium and iron. Therefore, they may inhibit bone growth.”

Additionally, the researchers found that dietary patterns higher in sugar, fat and protein and higher in dairy resulted in faster gain in body mass index z-scores from ages 6 to 12 months.

Analysis Based on Infant Feeding Practices Study

The researchers based their analysis on a subsample of more than 1,500 infants, nearly evenly split between genders, from the Infant Feeding Practices Study II.

In that study, mothers reported which of 18 different food types their 6- and 12-month old babies ate in a week.

The study was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2005 to 2007.

Study Supported by UB Department of Pediatrics

The UB study, “Sociodemographic Differences and Infant Dietary Patterns,” was funded by a seed grant from the UB Department of Pediatrics.

Wen’s co-authors are:

  • Kai Ling Kong, PhD, and Chuanbo Xie, MD, PhD, of the Department of Pediatrics
  • Rina Das Eiden, PhD, of UB’s Research Institute on Addictions
  • Neha Navneet Sharma of the Department of Psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences