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What This Shocking Breastfeeding Ad Gets Wrong

A provocative new ad campaign takes aim at moms' eating habits by showing infants suckling at breasts painted to look like junk food. "Your child is what you eat," the Brazilian ad claims, showing brand-new babies guzzling down soda or cheeseburgers in lieu of breast milk, implying that our own poor food choices directly hurt our children. But how much truth is behind the campaign's images, and how much is fear-mongering shame tactics? Do our breastfed babies really ingest our fatty, sugary, sleep-deprivation-fueled cravings?

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Turns out the campaign, created for Brazil's Pediatric Society of Rio Grande (SPRS), has some real validity behind the slightly misleading images. In fact when I dug a little deeper into the campaign's tagline—"Your habits in the first thousand days of gestation can prevent your child from developing serious diseases"—I was shocked at the recent research tying together maternal junk food and baby's developing brain.

According to new research presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), mom's junk-food diet during pregnancy can actually change her developing baby's brain, altering the opioid signaling pathway and permanently affecting the baby's reward processing system. Basically when we eat junk foods high in fat and sugar, we release opioid chemicals that then release dopamine—all "feel good" chemicals. And researchers found that when a pregnant mom eats an excessive amount of opioid-triggering foods, her offspring's opioid signaling pathway is less sensitive, so they'll need to eat more junk food to get the same level of "feel good" chemicals, making them more likely to over-indulge in junk foods themselves.

What you see is a quick implication that breastfeeding mothers are passing on their diets through their breast milk, when in reality, that's not how our bodies work.

And even though this opioid-linked research is new, rat studies showed a link between maternal junk food and obesity rates back in 2008. "The maternal diet seems to influence and trigger events early in the life of their offspring," study researcher Stephanie Bayol, PhD, told WebMD. "We found that by the end of their adolescence, the offspring from the junk-food-fed animals had increased blood sugar, blood fat and decreased insulin sensitivity—all of which are associated with overweight and diabetes."

Even when the rat babies were fed a healthy diet, those who came from junk-food-fed pregnant mothers had more active obesity-linked genes than the offspring of rats who ate healthy food during pregnancy. "Their fat cells were larger, which might make them more prone to obesity and might make it harder for them to lose weight," Bayol said. "So there were lasting effects from their mother's consumption of junk food, even if they were not fed junk food after weaning."

How about after pregnancy? The ads, after all, depict an infant sucking down junk food via breast milk. But it's the small print—the 1,000 days of healthy eating habits—that hold the most truth. According to British epidemiologist David Baker, our entire lifetime of health could be a product of the first 1,000 days of nutrition—270 days of pregnancy and the first two years of a child's life. In fact there's an entire First 1,000 Days movement in Ireland, created by Danone Early Life Nutrition (a leading infant nutrition company in Ireland), which claims, "The First 1000 Days is the critical window of opportunity where good nutrition can positively impact your child's health and well-being forever."

But would you get all of that information from the Brazilian ad campaign? Not likely. What you see is a quick implication that breastfeeding mothers are passing on their diets through their breast milk, when in reality, that's not how our bodies work. It's a diluted depiction of our biology, packing heavy on the shock factor.

Photograph by © SPRS

"Research tells us that the quality of a mother's diet has little influence on her milk. Nature is very forgiving—mother's milk is designed to provide for and protect even in times of hardship and famine. A poor diet is more likely to affect the mother than her breastfed baby," lactation consultant Kelly Bonyata wrote on her popular breastfeeding resource site KellyMom.com.

I checked in with another lactation consultant, Jenn Sullivan, owner of the popular mom boutique Waddle n Swaddle in the Hudson Valley, who agreed that the campaign's important message about maternal diet—especially during pregnancy—is somewhat lost on the shocking images. And the shaming aspect of the ads probably isn't the most effective way to get the message across.

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Bottom line: Your baby isn't getting a mouthful of sugar and fat through your breast milk; our bodies are designed to give our baby's the best nutrition possible, even if we're malnourished ourselves. But be warned—your habits during pregnancy and breastfeeding can have a lifelong affect on your baby's brain pathways and genetic encoding, which is probably just as startling as a newborn chugging a 20 oz. cola.

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