How Your Childhood Diet Influences Your Health Today: (And What To Do If You Were A Junk Food Kid)

How Your Childhood Diet Influences Your Health Today (And What To Do If You Were A Junk Food Kid) Dr. Will Cole

Bodies are resilient. They can take a lot of abuse in the form of bad health habits, and still function. You are brilliantly and wonderfully made, and you are who you are today because of everything you’ve experienced up to this present moment, on a spiritual, personal growth, and emotional level. Your childhood in particular has shaped you in many ways, and the way you ate as a child has most certainly influenced the way your body works right now, in terms of cravings, immune strength, and especially microbiome composition.

Uh oh, what if my childhood diet was terrible? Am I doomed to be unhealthy?

If you are cringing just thinking about the foods you ate as a kid, I feel your pain. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and my idea of the perfect Friday night was eating vanilla pudding, peanut butter cookies, and pizza – in that order – while watching the news and Jeopardy (I was a nerd from a young age….) But how much of what I experience healthwise now is a result of that pudding and those cookies? Here’s what you need to know about how the food you ate as a child dictates your health today:

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Your diet began in the womb

Your first meal wasn’t in the high chair; it was in your mom’s womb. Research has shown (1) that if your mother ate a diverse diet while pregnant, she is less likely to have a picky eater. At the time of conception, if your mom had nutritional deficiencies, they had the power (2) to influence your genetics, increasing risk factors for health problems such as diabetes, mental health problems, and autism.

Your microbiome forms at birth

The trillions of bacteria in your gut and on your skin make up 80 percent of your immune system, and most health problems are linked to this microbiome, which was initially established on your trip through the birth canal. Many things can influence its formation. For example, a majority of women in America are prescribed antibiotics during pregnancy and delivery. Many antibiotics are able to cross (3) the placenta and end up reaching the growing baby, negatively influencing many of the newly minted good bacteria trying to grow. Also, babies that are born vaginally have different microbiomes (4) than little ones born via C-section. With 32 percent (5) of all births Caesarean today, we do not yet fully understand the long-term impact this has on our microbiome and future health.

Breastfeeding makes a difference

Breastfeeding begins to positively affect eating behaviors because it exposes babies to a variety of different foods and flavors from the mother’s diet through her breast milk, especially if the mother eats a healthy and diverse diet. Research has associated breastfed babies with a willingness to eat a wider range of different foods when they start eating solids, and that early foundation of eating can establish patterns that could influence your health throughout your life.

Your early childhood diet sets the stage

During the first two to three years of your life your microbiome’s diversity increases (6) to match that of an adult’s microbiome. Everything you eat, and even the kind of life you live, during those years influences which bacteria will populate the microbiome you will carry throughout life. The bacteria from breast milk, the foods you ate, the dirt you played in, the pets you had, were all forming your growing gut garden. Chronic antibiotic use in childhood, or poor eating habits with lots of sugar and very few vegetables, can set the stage (7) for problems like obesity, food sensitivities, allergies, and autoimmune disease later in life – all before you even had much of a choice about the foods you ate!

Your cravings are already established

It’s not just about what you ate as a child – it’s about when and where and how. Fascinating research (8) looked at the link between the smell of food, nostalgia, and our cravings, and found that scent is tied psychologically to memory. Foods such as warm apple pie, pastries, and candy can subconsciously remind us of happy memories from our past and ignite serious cravings for comfort food.

Vegetables are always important

Studies have also shown (9) that up to 33 percent of kids eat almost no servings of vegetables, and when they do, the most common source is french fries! When young children rarely eat vegetables, this pattern tends to continue as they get older, and in many cases the quality of their diets continues to decline with an increased intake of processed snacks, soda, and fast food. Polyphenols from vegetables, fruits, and extra-virgin olive oil play a significant role in the prevention (10) of degenerative diseases by improving the composition of the microbiome, which in turn influences future health.

What can I do to rescue my health from childhood transgressions?

You couldn’t control what your mother ate while pregnant, how you were delivered, whether you were breastfed, or what foods you ate as a baby and toddler. You probably didn’t have that much control over your childhood diet, either. However, it is never too late to influence your future health by establishing new habits. If you ate tons of junk food as a kid (like I did), that has probably influenced your health today in some negative ways, but what you do starting right now can still have a big influence on your future health. Your body is amazingly resilient and wants to thrive. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future. Here are some ways to start.

1. Adopt a diet free of processed foods

Old habits are hard to break, but phasing out processed foods will have a beneficial effect on your microbiome condition. The more natural whole foods you eat, the more your microbiome will favor the immune-enhancing “good guys” and the more inhospitable you will make it for the more pathogenic bacteria to thrive in there.

2. Evaluate your medications

Turn a critical eye to any medications you’re taking. Many people regularly take medications like antibiotics, antacids, and NSAIDs without recognizing the health and microbiome side effects.

3. Take probiotics

An overgrowth of yeast or bacteria can be extremely detrimental to your health. Probiotics – specifically a combination of bifidobacteria, enterococcus, and lactobacillus – have been shown to have a positive (11) effect on gut health and can help you heal any damage caused by a childhood full of ice cream and cheese puffs.

4. Work on your stress levels

Chronic stress can hurt your health in all kinds of ways, and managing that stress can have a noticeably positive impact on your health. Try adopting a yoga or meditation practice, to get back on track.

5. Move your body

Exercise is good for your body and your mind. It’s also a great place to start if you’re looking to increase energy levels, balance blood sugar, and even reduce the effects of aging.

6. Take a B vitamin

B vitamins are uber-important for many reasons, but they are specifically needed for methylation, a biochemical process that influences a wide range of vital functions in your body, like thinking, digesting, detoxing, and protecting your DNA. Stress, a poor diet, and many types of medications can deplete your B vitamin levels, so supplementing is an important step in the right direction.

If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.

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  1. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 2001;107(6):E88. doi:10.1542/peds.107.6.e88
  2. Dominguez-Salas, P., Moore, S., Baker, M. et al. Maternal nutrition at conception modulates DNA methylation of human metastable epialleles. Nat Commun 5, 3746 (2014).
  3. Langdon A, Crook N, Dantas G. The effects of antibiotics on the microbiome throughout development and alternative approaches for therapeutic modulation. Genome Med. 2016;8(1):39. Published 2016 Apr 13. doi:10.1186/s13073-016-0294-z
  4. Neu J, Rushing J. Cesarean versus vaginal delivery: long-term infant outcomes and the hygiene hypothesis. Clin Perinatol. 2011;38(2):321‐331. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2011.03.008
  5. Joyce A. Martin, M.P.H., Brady E. Hamilton, Ph.D., Michelle J.K. Osterman, M.H.S., and Anne K. Driscoll, Ph.D.,  Births: Final Data For 2018 National Vital Statistics Reports November 27, 2019. Volume 68, Number 13
  6. Langdon A, Crook N, Dantas G. The effects of antibiotics on the microbiome throughout development and alternative approaches for therapeutic modulation. Genome Med. 2016;8(1):39. Published 2016 Apr 13. doi:10.1186/s13073-016-0294-z
  7. Voreades N, Kozil A, Weir TL. Diet and the development of the human intestinal microbiome. Front Microbiol. 2014;5:494. Published 2014 Sep 22. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2014.00494
  8. Chelsea A. Reid, Jeffrey D. Green, Tim Wildschut & Constantine Sedikides (2015) Scent-evoked nostalgia, Memory, 23:2, 157-166, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2013.876048
  9. Birch L, Savage JS, Ventura A. Influences on the Development of Children's Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2007;68(1):s1‐s56.
  10. Taira T, Yamaguchi S, Takahashi A, et al. Dietary polyphenols increase fecal mucin and immunoglobulin A and ameliorate the disturbance in gut microbiota caused by a high fat diet. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2015;57(3):212‐216. doi:10.3164/jcbn.15-15
  11. Fan YJ, Chen SJ, Yu YC, Si JM, Liu B. A probiotic treatment containing Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus improves IBS symptoms in an open label trial. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2006;7(12):987‐991. doi:10.1631/jzus.2006.B0987

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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