Food culture and breastfeeding

Over the last few years I’ve been reading more about food, where it comes from, how it’s produced, and our relationships with it. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a big one for me, and more recently I read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé and was intrigued by how the French think and act around food —  it’s appropriate that the UK version of the book is called French Children Don’t Throw Food. I’ve also got a request in at the library for Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything.

Lately, I’ve been reading Jeannie Marshall’s book Outside the Box (which I mentioned here) and so far, it’s really good. One of the earlier chapters deals with infant formula as the first processed food (“food product”) babies can be exposed to, and Marshall shares her own experiences with breastfeeding challenges (and ultimate success) and then goes on to talk about the role of breastfeeding in a food culture, generally.

I found this fascinating. I’m a huge proponent of breastfeeding (and more specifically, women overcoming cultural and institutional ‘booby traps’ and getting the personal support they need to be successful at breastfeeding) but I’d never stopped to think about it in this way. Of course, while a fetus is in utero, it’s eating everything its mother eats, and we’ve all heard that’s why babies in certain parts of the world will eat strongly flavoured curries with no objection when they first start solids – they’re already used to those flavours and intensities. But I had never stopped to think that, of course, breastfeeding is the next logical step in the introduction of a food culture to a baby. Marshall writes,

“Valeria [her midwife] also started preparing me to think about the process of breastfeeding and assured me that my diet during that period would also continue to influence his [her baby’s] tastes. It is a fact that flavours like garlic and broccoli pass from the mother’s diet into breast milk, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest children tend to gravitate toward those flavours once they are weaned. The healthy benefits of mother’s milk aside, this was the next step in the gentle process of raising a child to appreciate the taste of his particular family and the region where he’s being raised.

All of us had clearly gotten the message that “breast is best” for the baby’s health, that everything from a strong immune system to higher IQ levels later on are associated with breastfeeding. But we don’t often think about the role breastfeeding plays in shaping our children’s food preferences too, the way it influences what they eat later and how that consequently affects their health. In a place like Italy, or even more specifically, Rome, there is a range of tastes and a sort of coherence to the way foods and flavours work in the overall diet, so breastfeeding is an obvious way to pass those flavours along at the earliest stage of life – as long as everything else falls in tnto place.”

The weirdest thing is this: when I picked this book up from the library, I took a quick look at the new releases shelf and spotted the La Leche League book Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family, and just a few hours after I read the above passage from Marshall’s book, I read this in the LLL book:

“Unless you truly suspect your baby has a serious food sensitivity or allergy, don’t hesitate to continue to eat the good, wholesome food you’ve always eaten. If you come from a family or background where special dishes, spices, and ingredients are a prized part of your heritage, they are part of your baby’s heritage, too. You are passing along your culture through your milk, and if it tastes like onions, so be it.”

Just interesting that, what with all the fuss made over picky eaters who won’t eat vegetables, we don’t hear this argument for breastfeeding more often. I had never heard it myself until this weekend, and I read A LOT about breastfeeding. Or maybe I’m just noticing it more these days, as I’m thinking more about food.

In my own experience, I didn’t purposefully stop eating anything in particular when I was pregnant or nursing. In the early days of pregnancy, I had all-day morning sickness, and carbs were all I wanted: potatoes, pasta, crackers… the thought of protein, especially meat, made me even queasier. I remember that for a while, I had to turn away from the sight of gooey, cheesy pizza on TV commercials, but I practically had the number for Thai takeout on speed dial – the spicier the curry, the better.

Now, at almost two, my son has always been a non-discriminate, enthusiastic eater — and lately, he’s been asking for “d’autre spicy” (“more hot sauce”). He can’t get enough of it. Did he get a taste for this before he was even eating solids? It seems entirely plausible. In his wonderful book Hungry Monkey, which I read while I was pregnant, there’s a hilarious scene where Matthew Amster-Burton discovers that his daughter will happily eat insanely spicy foods, “panting and sweating — and asking for more”. I think it’s true that we often get in the way of what our children might like to eat because we assume they won’t like it.

Anyway, all food for thought. Sorry, couldn’t resist. It’s a good expression! So, the Primal tie-in to this topic is that I’m glad that PB emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding. I will admit that I am having a hard time reconciling the rich, healthy food cultures found in Marshall’s Italy and Druckerman and Le Billon’s France with PB’s no-grains, no-legumes mandate. But that’s a post for another day. This also has me thinking, what is my family’s food culture?

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One thought on “Food culture and breastfeeding

  1. Nice thoughts on breastfeeding and food culture. I wish I had seen that quote from La Leche League sooner. We get so caught up in the nutrition side of food, we forget about it’s cultural aspect. I’m glad you are enjoying my book so far. I hope you like the rest of it, too.

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