Consuming junk food during pregnancy may create 'addiction' in children, study finds

BETHESDA, Md. — There are many reasons not to eat junk food, but researchers in Australia have found one reason why pregnant mothers especially might want to avoid it.

According to a study published in the March 2013 issue of The FASEB Journal, pregnant mothers who consume junk food can cause changes in the brain chemistry of their babies, thereby making them less sensitive to opioids, the hormones released upon consumption of foods high in fat and sugar. Children born with such high tolerance to junk food need to eat more of it to achieve a "feel good" response. In other words, pregnant mothers who consume junk food may turn their children into junk food addicts.

"The results of this research will ultimately allow us to better inform pregnant women about the effect their diet has on the development of their child's lifelong good preferences and risk of metabolic disease," University of Adelaide FOODplus Research Centre researcher Beverly Muhlhausler said. "Hopefully, this will encourage mothers to make healthier diet choices which will lead to healthier children."

Muhlhausler and a team of researchers studied the young of two groups of rats, one of which had been fed normal rat food during pregnancy and another of which had been fed human junk food. After weaning, the young — known as pups — were given daily injections of an opioid receptor blocker, which prevents the release of the hormone dopamine to lower the intake of fat and sugar. Results indicated that the opioid receptor blocker was less effective at reducing fat and sugar intake in the pups of rats who had eaten junk food, showing that the neural pathways involved in opioid signaling were less sensitive than for those whose mothers had eaten normal rat food.