As most of you know, I am a first-time mom of a six-month-old baby boy named River. Wow! Where has the time gone? My husband and I have been working in the health and fitness arena for over a decade and have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from many extremely knowledgeable and experienced coaches and doctors in the field who have taught us endless information on the importance of nutrition as it relates to health. Together we have used this knowledge to support thousands of adults in their health, performance, and body compositional goals. But, if we really want to make an astronomical impact on people's lives, it starts at the very beginning; some may even say it actually starts BEFORE conception. Our mission is not only to teach people how to reach their highest potential through nutrition and fitness but to transcend that knowledge into future generations. If we want to change the landscape of America, it starts with us and it starts with what we introduce to our little ones!
Evidence is now showing that the first one thousand days of life are the most critical when it comes to nutrition because the environment and foods consumed during this period can determine what health will be like into adulthood.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, but am sharing my own personal knowledge based on extensive research, personal experience, and advice from our family bio-regulatory medicine doctor. This information is not meant to replace medical advice. Please be sure to consult your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns regarding the information in this article.
The first 1000 days is when metabolic programming takes place and food preferences are developed. Have you ever known a picky eater? This most likely dates back to what and how they may have been fed as an infant. Even important satiety cues and the relationship between leptin, a hormone that suppresses the desire to eat, and ghrelin, a hormone that increases the desire to eat) can be developed as early as infancy! Starting solids is a complex subject with many different avenues from baby-led to adult-led feeding, purees versus safe solids, handmade versus store-bought, etc. These are just a few tough choices that parents make when navigating the critical and exciting phase of introducing solids to their infant. Regardless of how a parent chooses to feed their baby, one thing remains the same: nutrient-dense foods are critical for development.
Before we dive into the specific micronutrients we want to ensure are included in an infant’s food profile, it's very important to understand the role that antinutrients play within the body. Certain foods such as grains, legumes, and pseudo-cereals contain anti-nutrients known as phytates and tannins which interfere with the absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Lectins are another form of anti-nutrients found in grains and legumes as well as potatoes, tomatoes, and squash, all of which can interfere with mineral absorption. There are ways to reduce the amount of anti-nutrients in certain foods such as using a pressure cooker, soaking, and fermenting but it’s important to understand that the most nutrient-dense food profile can be disrupted by phytates, tannins, and lectins.
Iron is a nutrient that is commonly discussed within pediatrics because it's essential for optimal brain development. If a baby doesn't get enough iron during their first 1,000 days of life there becomes a greater risk of iron-deficient anemia as well as poor motor, language, and cognitive development. One reason iron is suggested as a first food, especially in breastfed babies, is because this nutrient drops significantly in breastmilk around six months. Just like tannins and phytates block absorption of certain nutrients, foods such as whole cereals, spinach, dairy, and eggs block the absorption of iron whereas breastmilk, fermented foods, and vitamin C will boost the absorption of iron. There are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron can only be found in meat and animal-based supplements whereas non-heme iron can be found in plant and animal foods, supplements, formula, and fortified foods. The body absorbs less than 10% of non-heme iron because it must be converted into another form of iron compared to 25% of heme iron from animal-based foods. Many pediatricians recommend fortified cereals as a way to introduce iron into a baby’s diet but compared to meaty foods only 5% of this iron is actually absorbed. This means your baby would need to consume 5x the amount of iron from fortified cereals compared to meat.
Zinc is another nutrient that is important for optimal brain development but it also plays a role in healthy weight gain and a hardy immune response. The fix for a zinc deficiency is to focus on animal-based foods like meat, shellfish, and liver and avoiding foods that are high in zinc but also contain tannins and phytates such as grains, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin D is a necessary hormone that is crucial for bone development, gut health, a strong immune system, and brain development. The mother’s level during pregnancy is also important because it influences the microbes that colonize the baby’s gut. Poor microbes can lead to gut problems down the road such as dysbiosis. Like adults, supplementation and safe sun exposure are critical to ensure the baby receives enough vitamin D. The standard recommendation is 400IU/day until 12 months old. If you are formula feeding, most formulas have adequate vitamin D included but if you are breastfeeding and do not wish to give your baby drops, you’ll want to make sure you are taking around 6,000 IU per day to ensure it passes from your breastmilk.
Choline is a nutrient that is critical during pregnancy when the central nervous system is taking shape and contributes to the ability for neurons to grow and make connections. It is also a methyl donor, meaning it supports the healthy expression of DNA which is essential as your baby moves from newborn into infancy and toddlerhood. Choline is an essential micronutrient which means it must be replenished through food. Foods high in choline include liver, egg yolk, sardines, and meat.
Folate is also a methyl donor and impacts the expression of DNA. It’s important to know that folate and folic acid are not the same and when shopping for supplements you want to look for methylfolate and folinic acid and avoid those with folic acid. Folate is essential for long-term memory, spatial learning, and repetitive behavior. Liver is one of the best places to find folate!
Vitamin B12 is exclusively found in animal-based foods, most notably liver, and is essential for healthy blood formation, protecting neurons from degeneration and even plays a role in the regeneration of folate. Generally, a b12 deficiency is seen when mom and/or baby eliminate animal products from their diet. The importance of meat in a baby's diet has been researched extensively. Researchers followed two groups of children until they were six years old. One group consumed a vegan diet whereas the other consumed an omnivorous diet. They found that those who were only exposed to a vegan macrobiotic diet had lower levels of fluid intelligence, spatial ability, and worse short term memory. Scientists believe the developmental delays were due to a vitamin b12 deficiency. A more recent study in 2017 found that levels of b12 during infancy are linked to development and performance on neuropsychological tests after the age of 5 years old. The importance of meat in a baby's diet cannot be expressed enough because meat specifically includes many necessary vitamins and minerals that are essential for growth and development.
It’s apparent that nutrition is important during pregnancy but once the baby is born the importance of nutrition doesn’t stop, especially if you choose to breastfeed. Babies are still growing and developing rapidly, similar to when they were in the womb, and the first 1,000 days of life is when we see very specific nutrient demands to support this growth!
Where to start? Lamb’s liver is a great first food because it contains all of the necessary nutrients such as b12, choline, folate, vitamin K, iron, and zinc. Lamb, unlike other meats, is also hypoallergenic! When introducing solids it is important not to let your biases around food interfere with what you choose to feed your infant. This is the first time they are tasting foods and fortunately have a blank canvas with taste buds that have not been fully developed.
Studies show that 91% of adults and 69% of children in America are overfat. High body fat percentages can cause an array of metabolic and immune issues among other undesirable problems. We can be the change we want to see in the world, but it starts with self-education, living by example for the people around us and how we (specifically females) tackle nutrition and health before, during, and after pregnancy as well as what we (as parents) choose to feed our children within their first few years of life.