NUTRIMENTHE – From instinctive feeling to science-based fact: revealing how early diet impacts mental development
Fish, especially oily fish, has long been seen as good 'brain food'.
At the age of eight, children born to mothers who ate regularly fish during pregnancy have been shown to score better on verbal intelligence, fine motor skills, and social skills like giving, helping and sharing. Despite the potential disadvantages from increased intakes of contaminants through fish intake, it has been shown that the beneficial effects of higher omega-3 fatty acids supply from sea fish on child development outweigh those disadvantages. The European Commission supported expert consensus recommendations, including the advice that pregnant and lactating women should aim to achieve the omega-3 requirements with two portions of fish per week, with no risk for their offspring.
What is not yet known is exactly how this linkage occurs. Why should eating fish in pregnancy lead to children who do so much better? Nor do the questions stop there. This is just one among many - all just as important for our children's mental development. A growing body of opinion now sees the environment and nutrition we experience in our first 1,000 days as crucial determinants of both mental and physical health for the rest of our lives.
And of course, all parents want to do the best for their children. Mothers naturally want to know what they should eat during pregnancy. What should they avoid? Should they take supplements?
Instinctively, many people feel dietary intake must play a central role in how their children develop, not just physically but mentally. But clear scientific evidence has so far been limited.
It was to address this issue that the NUTRIMENTHE project was established in 2008. With funding provided under the Food, Fisheries, Agriculture and Biotechnology programme of the EU's 7th Framework Programme, NUTRIMENTHE brought together scientists from 19 organisations from 8 European countries plus the USA, and it is coordinated by Prof. Cristina Campoy at the University of Granada (Spain).
The aim: to embark on a five year programme to study in more detail than ever before exactly how and why diet can impact on the mental development and performance of children.
As well as providing an invaluable guide for parents, improving our understanding of how mental performance, cognitive development and behaviour can be affected by early diet will have important implications for public health policy development - as well as for the food industry and its regulation. As well as research institutes, the project's participants included private enterprises – including the research and development department of the global food manufacturer, Unilever.
Looking at the benefits of eating fish during pregnancy, the 'hot candidates' are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as the key nutrients, especially since these are key building blocks in the cell membranes of the brain. But noone yet knows for sure. The study is examining whether this really is the case and, if so, exactly how the benefits are transmitted from mother to child.
A further area the study is hoping to understand is how far the genes of the mother determine the process, and how much influence is exerted by the genes of the child. As well as the impact of omega-3 and omega-6, the wide-ranging NUTRIMENTHE project is also investigating the role of other specific nutrients in children's mental performance, including B-vitamins, iodine, iron, zinc and protein. The project will even investigate the economic impacts associated with the various ways in which these dietary factors are shown to affect mental performance.
Due to end in 2013, the groundbreaking NUTRIMENTHE project aims to result in the establishment, for the first time, of reliable, science-based dietary recommendations for a range of different nutrients.
By improving both public knowledge and public policy, NUTRIMENTHE promises to play a crucial role in ensuring the best possible outcomes for future generations.