Boosting baby’s brainpower starts with your bump. Since the nutrients needed for healthy brain development are passed directly from your diet, what you eat (and don’t eat) when pregnant can impact your little one’s memory, motor development, language skills and capacity to learn. Start to school your baby early by chowing down on smart foods and avoiding brain-draining eats.
1 | Be mindful of mercury
Eating seafood while preggers is a catch-22. Yes, baby’s brain can benefit from the omega-3s found in fish, but seafood can also contain traces of mercury. “Mercury, which passes from the mother’s blood to the fetus, is a fetal neurotoxin that can produce mild to severe effects on fetal brain development,” warns Judith E. Brown, RD, MPH, PhD, author of What to Eat Before, During, and After Pregnancy. So what’s a pregnant gal to do? Don’t give up fish, just steer clear of mercury heavyweights like shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish in favor of lower-mercury options like anchovies, shad and mackerel.
Good to know: Opt for canned light tuna over canned white albacore, which has more mercury. (Limit to 6 ounces weekly.)
2 | Crack choline
Skip the egg white omelets and go for the whole enchilada. Thanks to their choline content, incredible, edible egg yolks have been linked to improved memory. (Choline is a B-complex vitamin that’s also found in meat, nuts and certain vegetables.) Animal studies show that a choline-rich diet in the womb has memory-boosting effects for life. Be sure to consume the recommended 450 mg daily if you’re pregnant, or 550 mg if you’re breastfeeding.
Good to know: 1 large egg equals 126 mg of choline.
3 | Do some good with DHA
The long held belief that fish is brain food has merit. Research shows that getting adequate prenatal docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in oily fish like salmon and sardines, can enhance baby’s brain development. A study of Inuit infants published in The Journal of Pediatrics measured DHA in umbilical cords at birth and found babies with higher levels had better visual, cognitive and motor development. To get the recommended 250 milligrams (mg) a day, eat oily, cold water fish (salmon, sardines, herring), fortified eggs, flaxseed oil and walnuts.
Good to know: A 3-ounce serving of salmon has a whopping 600 mg of DHA.
4 | Ante up on antioxidants
“Antioxidants help protect developing cells in the brain and other tissues from damage,” says Brown. What’s more, a study by the University of Copenhagen suggests that a deficiency in vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps create neurotransmitters, could impair early brain development. “Top sources of antioxidant-rich foods are pomegranates, blackberries, walnuts, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries,” adds Brown.
Good to know: To make sure you’re eating enough antioxidants, pick colorful produce in a range of hues.
5 | Pass on pesticides
Reducing your pesticide intake early in pregnancy could enhance academic achievement down the road. Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine found that babies conceived between June and August, when pesticide levels are at their peak, scored lowest on math and language tests. To reduce baby’s exposure, opt for organic produce when possible.
Good to know: Thin-skinned produce like peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, cherries and bell peppers have the highest pesticide concentrations.
6 | Eat enough iron
Spinach isn’t just for Popeye; pregnant Olive Oyls can benefit from its noggin-nourishing effects too. “Iron deficiency during pregnancy is related to lower scores on intelligence, language, gross motor and attention tests in children at the age of 5 years,” says Brown. Preggo gals need twice as much iron (30 mg per day) as the non-pregnant crowd, so load up on iron-rich foods like beef, fortified cereals and lima beans. You might also invest in cast-iron cookware or ask your doctor about iron supplements.
Good to know: Spinach contains vitamin C as well, which aids in iron absorption.