Minimally processed, natural food can help protect your baby against obesity later in life, according to the latest research.

Feeding babies pureed green beans, mashed sweet potatoes and corn, apples blended with chicken and rice cereal — foods made with real fruits and vegetables and loaded with vitamins and nutrients — could be the key to maintaining a healthy weight into adulthood, says Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the University of Michigan Health System.

"There is a tremendous problem today with childhood obesity in the United States, one that medical researchers and physicians are trying to address by identifying the factors that are contributing to this epidemic," says Lumeng. "One area of focus has been the possible connection between early feeding practices and a child's risk for obesity."

Years of research has already shown that breastfeeding protects against later obesity. With that in mind, Lumeng encourages new moms to make their best effort at breastfeeding, and to seek help from their pediatrician or a lactation consultant if they experience difficulty.

And when your child is old enough for solid foods, Lumeng recommends starting with rice cereal, which is a great source of iron. After introducing rice cereal into their diet, it's then time to move on to vegetables like pureed green beans or carrots.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin to introduce their child to solid food no sooner than four to six months of age.

Solid foods present a great opportunity to introduce babies to the pleasures of healthy eating. "It's really important for your child's first flavor experience to be something that's healthy," notes Lumeng. "And the more a child tastes a particular food, the greater liking they'll develop for it."

For that very reason, Lumeng says it extremely important to keep sweets out of your child's diet when they're first learning to eat.

"Pudding or ice cream should not be the first foods your child experiences," Lumeng cautions. "The more kids eat sweets and sugar, the greater liking they'll develop for them and the more they'll want to consume them. Plus, there is some evidence that suggests that the type of food children eat early in life could contribute to their risk for obesity."

And if your child still won't eat his vegetables, don't give up hope. Infants will need to be exposed to some foods 10 to 15 times before they will begin to accept and like them.

During this critical developmental stage, Lumeng also recommends that parents encourage their children to eat a wide variety of food. Allowing them to sample a range of healthy foods may translate into a healthier diet as they age, potentially further lowering their risk for obesity.