Fat moms make fat babies; and thin, high-carb eating moms might make fat kids too…

Juliana is the oldest of three kids, and the only one of my three kids who was ever overweight.  Indeed, at the moment, my son Teddy is technically underweight, with a BMI in the 3rd percentile.

When I was pregnant with and nursing Juliana, I ate a vegetarian diet.  When I was pregnant with her sister Molly, I had an overwhelming desire for chicken, and abruptly stopped eating vegetarian after 18 years.  So I got to wondering whether there might be a relationship between what I ate while pregnant and nursing and Juliana’s metabolism and ability to handle carbohydrates versus her siblings.

And there could be.  Fat mothers produce fatter babies; diabetic mothers (whose blood sugar is on average higher than non-diabetic mothers) produce fatter babies.  And the incidence of fat babies is increasingly dramatically, in step with the increase in obese and diabetic adults.

“The probable explanation is that as women of childbearing age get heavier and more of them become diabetic, they pass the metabolic consequences on to their children through what is known technically as the intrauterine environment. The nutrient supply from mother to developing child passes across the placenta in proportion to the nutrient concentration in the mother’s bloodstream. If the mother has high blood sugar, then the developing pancreas in the fetus will respond to this stimulus by overproducing insulin-secreting cells. “The baby is not diabetic,” explains Boyd Metzger, who studies diabetes and pregnancy at Northwestern University, “but the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are stimulated to function and grow in size and number by the environment they’re in. So they start over functioning. That in turn leads to a baby laying down more fat, which is why the baby of a diabetic mother is typified by being a fat baby.”

Taubes, Gary (2007-09-25). Good Calories, Bad Calories (Kindle Locations 8167-8174). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Juliana wasn’t actually a fat baby.  But her intrauterine environment was with me eating a vegetarian diet, which was necessarily higher carb than when I switched to being an omnivore with Molly and Teddy’s pregnancies.  She was also nursed for several years with me eating a vegetarian diet.  I’m not diabetic, but that doesn’t mean Juliana didn’t suffer the consequences of my high-carb eating style:

“There’s no reason to think that the hormonal and metabolic consequences of high blood sugar—from what James Neel in 1982 called the “excessive glucose pulses that result from the refined carbohydrates/ over-alimentation of many civilized diets”—do not pass from mother to child through the intrauterine environment, whether the mother is clinically diabetic or not.”

Taubes, Gary (2007-09-25). Good Calories, Bad Calories (Kindle Locations 8189-8192). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I can’t prove that my eating style contributed to Juliana’s carb sensitivity and subsequent overweight–but it’s an interesting association that she is the only one of three kids who experienced my high-carb eating style and she’s the only one with excess weight.

Juliana has to learn what a “normal” appetite is

After a lifetime of high-carb eating, which overwhelmed Juliana’s system before she was 3, she doesn’t know what her “normal” appetite is.  We’ve been paying a lot of attention lately to whether she feels hungry; whether she feels full; and whether she feels overfull.  We’re trying to learn how much she has to eat to not be hungry and to maintain her energy level depending on what she’s doing.  If she’s running a lot, playing soccer and then refereeing a soccer game, she might need to eat more than if she has a sedentary day.  But we want her to eat no more than she has to so that her weight will continue to drop.

A well-functioning appetite should make these adjustments automatically.  Juliana’s appetite has been elevated for so long that she has to concentrate to tune in to the new information she is getting from her body.  She also has to get used to the fact that a smaller quantity of food is adequate.  A high carb diet produces extreme hunger in a sensitive individual, and I believe it is truly painful, especially for a child.  She still has a bit of fear of being hungry if she eats a smaller amount of food.

She was very hungry on the Packard program, so that is one of her touch points.  She should not be that hungry, ever.  She should try not to feel stuffed ever either.  She’s started eating her meals a lot more slowly than she used to–I think this development is mostly unconscious, but it helps her to avoid eating more than she needs.  She’s not starving when she sits down to eat, as she was on a high carb eating plan, so it’s more possible and easier to eat slowly.

Can a child be a low carb vegetarian or vegan?

Can I be a low carb vegan?  Short answer:  No.

How about a low carb lacto-ovo vegetarian?  Possibly, but really difficult.

Most of the low carb eating plans I’ve seen suggest that you can be a vegetarian or even a vegan.  I frankly don’t think this is really realistic even for an adult.  But for a child, a low carb vegetarian eating plan may be setting them up for failure.

There is a dizzying array of high carb food available–most of the food in the supermarket is high carb.  The cereal aisle.  The pasta and rice aisle.  The baking aisle.  The chips and crackers aisle.  The cookie aisle.  The bakery department.  The juice and soda aisle.  When you switch to low carb, your universe of acceptable food shrinks.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that many of the choices are foods you might have wanted to eat but usually didn’t:  pork bacon, steak, cheeseburgers.  At first, the new eating plan is great.  Bacon, again?  Why Not?  After a while, though, you have to get creative with your meal planning.  No one wants to eat cheeseburgers three meals a day.

Now imagine the only protein and fat sources available to you are eggs, cheese and cream, and some tree nuts.   (In my opinion, substituting highly processed soy products, like tofu and tempeh, for animal-based protein is not a good idea).  Try to come up with 3 meals a day where most of your calories come from those fat and protein sources.  You can eat nut butter, but remember you can’t spread it on bread.  Yes, there are a lot of ways to prepare eggs, but probably not enough to keep your child on the eating plan.

My coach at my gym put it well while giving a nutrition talk.  She said she likes animals, and she doesn’t really want to eat animals, but she needs protein and fat, so she does.

Who is Gary Taubes?

Gary Taubes is a science writer who reports and writes about issues of public health, nutrition, and diet.  He wrote two books that completely changed how I thought about Juliana’s overweight, and what we did about it.

Good Calories, Bad Calories is an exhaustively researched and documented history and analysis of obesity research and public policy about nutrition over almost 200 years, that is nonetheless an engaging read.  The book documents that carbohydrates used to be widely recognized as uniquely fattening, and how and why that changed in the years leading up to the push in the 1980s to get Americans to eat high-carb, low-fat diets.

In response to requests from readers for a shorter book they could hand out to family and friends, Taubes wrote “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About it.”  It’s the Cliffs Notes version of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” and is a great place to start learning about low carb eating.

Visit Taubes’ website.