Looking to raise a little genius? Put down that cookie, and pick up some walnuts. It turns out, what you eat throughout pregnancy influences baby’s brain development, an amazing process that begins at just five weeks gestation and continues into late adolescence.
In addition to heeding your healthcare provider’s advice and avoiding obvious no-nos, like smoking and drinking alcohol, there are some other nutritional choices you can make during pregnancy that will help baby’s fetal brain grow and develop properly. Here’s what your nine mind-nurturing months should look like …
Remember those pregnancy guidelines the doctor handed you when you first found out you were expecting? You’ll want to give the ones that have to do with lifestyle choices your full attention.
That’s because the brain requires adequate fuel, nutrients and oxygen to properly develop, says Lindsay Stenovec, MS, RD/RDN, CLC, owner of the private practice Nutrition Instincts in San Diego, California. The nutrients and fuel are provided from food and your prenatal vitamin. For oxygen, moderate exercise during pregnancy is said to help improve fetal breathing movements.
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Take note: Women who don’t gain the appropriate amount of weight or get the right amount of physical activity during pregnancy are putting their babies’ fetal brains at risk, warns Rachel Brandeis, RD, a private practice dietitian and mom of two in Atlanta.
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that women of child-bearing age should maintain good nutritional status through a lifestyle that optimizes maternal health and reduces the risk of birth defects, suboptimal fetal growth and development, and chronic health problems in their children,” she explains.
That means women who are at a healthy prepregnancy weight should typically expect to gain between 25 and 35 pounds and aim to get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Safe food handling is also important during pregnancy to reduce your baby’s risk of fetal brain defects. Wash your hands before and after touching food, and consider using a food thermometer when cooking.
In addition lifestyle choices, the dietary decisions you make during pregnancy have a big impact on your infant’s brain development. Important nutrients for brain development include carbohydrates, protein, fat (especially omega-3 fatty acids), folate, iron, iodine and choline, shares Stenovec. “When able, I recommend primarily getting these nutrients from food and taking a prenatal vitamin to ensure enough of these nutrients are being consumed,” she says.
So what should you be eating?
Fish and seafood
Although many women assume fish and seafood are off-limits during pregnancy, they are actually great choices for fetal brain development. Just as adults often enjoy a cognitive boost from the omega-3s found in fish, baby’s brain can also benefit. Brandeis highly recommends fish for moms-to-be, as long as they’re smart about what kinds they choose.
“Fish is an important part of a pregnancy diet, and although it’s true that not all fish is safe for pregnant women, avoiding seafood can be detrimental too. Pregnant women should aim to eat 8 to 12 ounces of safe seafood a week,” Brandeis advises.
Try eating tilapia, cod, non-Atlantic salmon, shrimp or sardines weekly, and avoid raw fish (including sushi) and swordfish. A full list of fish that’s safe (and isn’t) during pregnancy is available at americanpregnancy.org. “Fish is full of protein and iron, and pregnant women need at least 27 milligrams (mg) of iron and 71 grams of protein daily to help prevent anemia and support the baby’s growth,” adds Brandeis.
Fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and DHA (a kind of omega-3), which helps to decrease inflammation and support infant brain development. But if you don’t like the stuff from the sea, there are plenty of other options for getting those healthy fatty acids in your diet.
“Women who are pregnant or lactating need between 200 and 300 mg of DHA per day,” Stenovec says. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s are found in ALA form (as opposed to DHA) and include walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil. Though Stenovec notes, “It’s important to keep in mind that ALA does not convert to DHA in the body very efficiently.” Brandeis recommends walnuts, flaxseeds, tofu, winter squash and collard greens as good sources of fatty acids. Kale, spinach, raspberries and even green beans also contain omega-3s.
Researchers in Canada determined that maternal protein intake might be the most critical element of all in a baby’s neurological development. A recent study showed that prenatal protein deficiency impacted baby’s brain at the most critical junctures of development. The USDA Daily Food Plan for moms recommends that women aim to eat 5.5 to 6.5 ounces of protein daily in their first trimester, and then increase their intake by a third to somewhere between 6.5 and 7 ounces daily.
Smart choices of protein include peanut butter, eggs, beans and soy nuts. Meat and fish are also great options. Just ask for them to be prepared well done when you go out to eat.
Greens, beans and dairy
The folic acid found in many vegetables and legumes helps the body form red blood cells, and for pregnant women, can reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Additional foods that boast important nutrients for fetal development include beans, dark leafy greens, edamame, eggs, pistachios, whole grains, chicken and dairy products like yogurt.
What about junk food?
Cravings are a normal and healthy part of pregnancy, so don’t beat yourself up over eating junk food. The goal is to aim for a well-balanced diet throughout pregnancy that will support baby’s brain development. As long as your overall diet is made up of mostly healthy foods, you’re doing just fine.
“It’s important for a woman to get in tune with her body’s hunger and fullness cues in order to guide her eating,” Stenovec says. “She should identify areas in her life that may add stress and make the eating experience difficult, such as a busy work or personal life, not getting enough personal time, or using food to cope with emotions. Focusing on balance instead of rigidity is key.”