Campaign Shames Breast-Feeding Moms Who Eat Doughnuts and Burgers

Ads from a public health organization in Brazil suggest pregnant and nursing women who chow down on junk food are harming their babies.

(Photo: Adeevee/Facebook)

Sep 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Most mothers wouldn’t voluntarily feed their babies junk food—or allow them to sip sugary beverages. But if a woman chows down on unhealthy foods while pregnant or nursing, is that what she may be doing?

That’s the gist of a provocative advertising campaign for the Pediatric Society of Rio Grande. The ads, which were created for the public health organization by Brazilian agency Paim, each depict a baby suckling on an unhealthy food instead of a breast.

One ad features a baby nursing on a burger, the second has an baby feeding on a doughnut, and the third has an infant nursing from a cup of soda. “Your child is what you eat,” reads the campaign’s tagline in large cursive letters across the woman’s chest. “Your habits in the first thousand days of gestation can prevent your child from developing serious diseases,” it continues.

The society did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.

Diana West, a spokesperson for La Leche League International, the organization that promotes breast-feeding, expressed surprise and dismay over the ad’s message. “It’s absolutely not true that what you eat equals what the milk is,” she said. “The underlying premise is just completely wrong and not supported by any science. It’s just kind of shocking that the medical community would put this out.”

(Photo: Adeevee/Facebook)

Women are commonly advised to skip liquor, cigarettes, and double espresso shots while pregnant or nursing—alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine all cross the placenta and pass into breast milk. Recent studies have suggested that moms who indulge in fast food or processed junk food while pregnant or breast-feeding might be elevating the risk of their children being obese later in life. Another study from 2009 found that eating junk food while breast-feeding cancels out its asthma-prevention benefits.

But while pregnant women are encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet in order to prevent low birth weight and birth defects—and breast-feeding is known to have numerous positive benefits for babies—West said the body’s milk production is designed to be relatively consistent so that the nutrients in whatever food a mother consumes go first into the milk. If there is any nutritional deficit, it will be experienced by the mother. “She’s the one that gets robbed, not the milk,” said West.

Indeed, a 1996 study published by Georgetown University Medical Center confirmed the findings of more than a dozen other previous studies. “Even when a mother’s own supply of nutrients and energy is limited, she still is able to produce breast milk of sufficient quantity and quality to support the growth and health of her infant,” the Georgetown researchers wrote.

West also cautioned that the shaming aspect of the advertisements may actually cause women to steer clear of nursing their infants. “What we tend to see, and this has also been shown in research, is that when you tell women that they have to eat a perfect diet in order to breast-feed very consistently, they turn to formula with the perception that it is perfect and they can trust it more,” she said.

The ad campaign comes as Brazil is battling a burgeoning obesity problem. In 2014, 54 percent of men and 48 percent of women in the South American country were overweight. Last fall health officials there revealed new dietary guidelines and a public education campaign designed to inform the public about the dangers of eating too many processed foods.

But if the ad campaign is successful in Brazil, it could end up producing an unwelcome result. “If you eat junk food, yes, it affects obesity. But breast-fed babies overall have considerably lower rates of obesity than formula fed babies.” said West. “Doing something that drives people toward formula, epidemiologically they’re going to see higher obesity rates in the population.”

(Photo: Adeevee/Facebook)