Recently, the FDA changed its recommendations to encourage pregnant mothers to eat more seafood. It turns out that the rewards of eating seafood, especially certain types like salmon, will actually make your baby smarter. Or at least improve cognitive development and could reduce autism-spectrum traits.
In particular, there is an increased need for omega-3 fatty acids for expecting mothers because docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the omega-3 fatty acids, is the predominant fat in the brain and central nervous system. Increasing DHA consumption positively affects neurocognitive development. DHA accumulates in the brain during pregnancy through breastmilk. DHA from mother’s milk is essential for the brain-related benefits for infants. Benefits include improved mental development, hand-eye coordination, better attention and memory scores later in life, and better adaptability to surroundings. Overall, increased intake of omega-3s, through omega-3 rich seafood like wild salmon, sablefish, and halibut enhances cognitive development, processing speed, working memory and executive function later in life. Omega-3 consumption through seafood reduces inflammation and as a result has been associated with a reduced food allergies, other allergies and asthma in young children.
A recent study in Spain that included 2000 mother-child pairs from first trimester of pregnancy to the child’s fifth birthday showed that when mothers eat three sizeable servings of fish each week during pregnancy it may benefit children’s brains for years to come. The study found improved brain function in kids whose mothers ate the most fish while pregnant. Children were tested at ages 14 months and five years to assess their cognitive abilities and Asperger Syndrome traits, and to monitor their neuropsychological development. The link between higher maternal seafood consumption and improved brain development in children was especially apparent when kids were five years old. The researchers also saw a consistent reduction in autism-spectrum traits with increased maternal seafood consumption.
Fish give us a lot of protein typically with lower calories than other protein sources. Fish, particularly salmon and sablefish, are loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Fish also have more vitamin B12 and vitamin D than any other type of food. Fish is also a source of iron, which is essential for infants, young children and expecting mothers.
Because of fears over mercury contamination in fish, the FDA issued a cautionary statement in 1994 to women who were pregnant and many pregnant women chose to completely exclude seafood from their diets. However, more and more research has pointed out that the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risks. Emerging research suggests that reduced seafood intake is very likely increasing the risk of complications and limiting brain development in our children!
The advantages of consuming seafood outweigh the risk associated with mercury contamination, particularly with high omega-3/lower-level mercury species such as salmon and sablefish. In addition, seafood is high in selenium, which counteracts mercury toxicity by preventing from entering tissues.
The FDA recommends two to three servings per week of best choice seafood, like salmon.
In 2010 the U.S. government researched and endorsed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and included this new evidence in their recommendations to pregnant and breastfeeding women. The guidelines include 8-12 oz. weekly of fish and seafood low in mercury to support the growth and development of the fetus and infant. While pregnant women are aware of the recommended amounts of milk and dairy foods as well as fruit and vegetables, seafood has not made it to the MUST EAT WEEKLY list for most pregnant women; in fact seafood unfortunately may very well be on their do not eat list.
The primary reason to include fish and seafood products in the diet during pregnancy is that they are one of the very few sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. (Omega-3 fatty acids are available in a few other foods, like walnuts, but are typically not found in their more potent long-chain form.) Babies need enough DHA for proper nervous system development, including visual and cognitive development. There is also emerging research that adequate DHA intake helps prevent premature delivery. We now know that near full term delivery supports brain development in the fetus. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy may prevent or help manage perinatal depression, reduce body fat in infancy and childhood and improve immune response.
A key study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 (Oken, E. 88;789-96) observed over 25,000 children born to mothers participating in a 5-year Danish study. The researchers wanted to evaluate the odds of higher development scores with maternal fish intake. Those women with at least 3 servings (12 oz.) of fish each week (cod, salmon, mackerel or herring) had infants that scored 30% higher on motor, social and cognitive skill tests than infants whose mothers had eaten less than 1 serving each week of seafood. Research indeed does suggest that attainment of developmental milestones in infancy can predict cognitive outcomes in adulthood such as education attainment and intelligence quotient.
A review in a prominent medical journal, The Lancet, (Hibbeln, JR. Lancet 369:578-585; Feb. 2007) came to similar conclusions as they observed nearly 12,000 women and infants in England and found that the ideal amount of seafood consumption to maximize infant health was at least 11oz. per week; they mentioned that there were no detrimental effects at consumption higher than this and found no reason to limit the intake of low mercury seafood to less than 12 oz. per week. The researchers reported numerous adverse outcomes associated with insufficient intakes of omega-3 fatty acids including growth retardation, delayed depth perception, adverse neurodevelopmental measures, deficits in fine motor skills, reduced speed of information processing in infants and irreversible deficits in serotonin and dopamine release. The authors concluded that “advice to limit seafood consumption during pregnancy could actually be detrimental.”
It also must be noted that consuming Omega-3s might help with postpartum depression. During the time after childbirth, a mother experiences a sharp decline in Omega-3s, which might be a part of the cause of the postpartum depression. Some studies have showing that women showing signs of postpartum depression had less severe depression when consuming the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA than women not consuming EPA and DHA.
Other points to bear in mind:
- Seafood consumption rates by Americans are among the lowest of all developed nations.
- The omega-3 fatty acid content of American breast milk is among the lowest in the world.
There are just too many health benefits to eating fish to ignore. These health benefits also include:
- Seafood helps develop healthy bones and teeth
- Seafood promotes immune function
- Seafood promotes cognitive function
- Seafood helps maintain heart health
- Seafood helps with healthier pregnancies by providing expecting mothers the nutrients their babies will need
- And many more…
Research shows that pregnant American women only consume an average of 2 oz. per week of seafood and that contradictory media messages have many women confused about the problem of eating unsafe fish. Health professionals and the media need to get the best information to pregnant and breastfeeding women: Eat your seafood, 12 ounces of a variety each week and limit high mercury seafood—shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel.
None of the fish we sell tests high for mercury content and all of the fish we sell are high in selenium, which is an essential mineral that counteracts mercury toxicity.
Weiser, M. et. Al, Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan Nutrients 2016, 8, 99
Koletzko, et al., Dietary fat intake for pregnant and lactating women. British Journal of Nutrition 2007
Cindy Brinn MPH, RD, CDE, BC-ADM