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Food Education Starting Along With Breast Milk

When I recall my childhood in the 1930s, I remember my family sitting at the dinner table together, all five of us, and starting the meal by saying "itadaki-masu" to express gratitude for the food we were about to eat. My father who was a devout Buddhist would pay his respects at the altar and recite a short sutra before being seated. From time to time, he would tell us to thank the farmers who grew the vegetables and the fisherman who had caught the fish. You could say that mealtimes were also an education.

When World War II began, however, I entered the Naval Academy and my family also evacuated to Choshi on the coast of Chiba prefecture until it was considered dangerous. They then moved to the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture and that was when our mealtimes as one family ended. With the postwar recovery and growing affluence, we started watching TV while eating, and after that, our mealtimes were never the same. This was the situation in my family, so I assume that families all over Japan were experiencing a big change in their eating habits, too. And as society grew more affluent, we began to see obesity, anorexia, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and a host of other problems.

This was considered to be a dangerous situation for the country, and the Basic Law on Food Education was enacted in 2005. According to this law, the 19th of each months is designated "Food Education Day" and June is "Food Education Month." At these times, activities are held to promote food education and improve and inculcate good eating habits.

Most people had probably not heard of "Food Education" until then. It was the army physician and doctor of Chinese medicine, Ishizuka Sagen, who coined the term at the end of the 19th century when he declared that physical growth, mental growth and development of capabilities and aptitude all depended on food education. This was the start of Food Education. Tokyo University had just been established and daily nutrition was not entirely adequate, and the scientific validity of his ideas was still not fully known.

After food education gained currency, the daily diet of children became a major issue for discussion and two problems were identified: first, commercials for high-calorie food with poor nutritional content that targeted children, and second, food additives and preservatives. The first is thought to be related to child obesity and metabolic syndrome, and the latter to attention deficit syndrome (ADHD). As a result, many countries began to stop the advertisements and food additives.

Considered in this light, food education is an issue that reflects both positive and negative aspects of scientific and technological progress. In other words, it is the adverse side of a materially affluent society. And it is understandable that there would be a strong move to "return to nature," advocating, for instance, food grown with organic, not chemical fertilizer.

And of course, this means that babies should also be nourished by breast milk rather infant formula. When I was a physician in the mid-1970s, the British medical journal, Lancet, published an article stating that breastfeeding was the starting point for food education. When infants begin nursing, the protein concentration of breast milk remains relatively stable, but fat and pH levels rise, and with less acidity, it becomes creamier.

In other words, the change in the flavor of breast milk is a sign that tells the infant when nursing has begun and ended. This is not the case with infant formula. It tastes the same from start to finish, so that infant keeps drinking until satiated. This is most likely related to later obesity. It also indicates that breastfeeding is food education at the beginning of the child's life.

In this light, breastfeeding can also be considered the transmission of food culture. Breast milk contains the very small amounts of the ingredients that may also teach the infant the tastes that are important in each food culture: red chili pepper in kimchi food culture, curry in curry food cultures, and miso and soy sauce where miso and soy sauce are used.

Although human beings are special animals, it is still important to coexist with nature. Food education, which is essential to the growth and development of children's healthy emotional and physical development, should begin with breastfeeding, which is start of their lifetime eating habits.

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