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'.
Recent studies have taken that one stage further – indicating that consuming fish
while still in the womb is even better.
© Fotolia, 2012
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
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
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
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
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.