Want to Build a Better Brain? Eat More Fish

Guest post by Dr. Scott Nichols

Whether it’s a kitchen knife or a garden shovel, a goal when buying tools is they last a lifetime. The recent release of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) 2020 Scientific Report offers an essential tool guide if your project is to build a brain.

The DGAC report, published every 5 years, historically dealt with dietary needs for those older than two. In 2020, for the first time, they expanded their view to include infants up two years old and had a greater emphasis on pregnant women and lactating moms. Within this year’s 835 page review (confession—sometimes, I skimmed) there is abundant good news about how including seafood in our kids’ diets helps build their developing brains.

After their review, the committee found compelling evidence that seafood improves many measures of kids’ brain development. Specifically, they said seafood “consumption during pregnancy may be related to reduced risk of hypertensive disorders and preterm birth and better cognitive development and language and communication development in children.”  (Scientific Report, Part A. Executive Summary. Page 4)

Seafood—a tool to build a brain.

A Deeper Dive into Seafood & Kids’ Brain Development Measures

Much greater detail underlying the DGAC’s conclusion resides in a paper published in October 2019 by top researchers in the fields of dietary fats, pediatrics, and maternal health, many of which are part of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP) Scientific & Nutrition Advisory Council (disclosure, I am a member of the SNP panel though not an author on the paper). The paper is a meta-analysis or a study of studies. It includes 44 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

The authors responded to two questions posed by the DGAC:

  1. What is the relationship between maternal seafood consumption during pregnancy and lactation and the neurocognitive development of the infant?
  2. What is the relationship between seafood consumption during childhood and adolescence (up to 18 years of age) and neurocognitive development?

Findings to address the first question came from 106,237 mother/infant pairs in 29 studies. The criteria for a study’s admission into review were strict. Only rigorously controlled studies qualify.  That means the authors choose study populations that are identical for socioeconomic status, age, ethnicity and more so that the only difference between groups studied is the amount of seafood eaten.

A principal assessment tool used in the studies was IQ tests that measured both reasoning and verbal skills. Of the 29 studies, 24 showed mothers’ seafood consumption associated with beneficial outcomes throughout the spectrum of different tests and evaluations.

The effects weren’t trivial. Children’s IQ score improved 7.1 to 9.5 points.

The benefits tended to increase with increased consumption. Twelve studies found benefits increased for women who ate more than 12 ounces per week throughout pregnancy, although the rate at which benefits increased slowed down with higher consumption. Four studies found that benefits reached a plateau at 12 ounces per week.

No study found an adverse effect of eating seafood in any amount.  In some cases women ate more than 100 ounces of seafood weekly. I can’t over-stress how important this is. Previously, some advisors counseled an upper limit of 12 ounces of seafood per week for pregnant women to avoid mercury that may be in some seafoods.

But the study clearly shows the risk we should avoid — that risk is limiting seafood and losing the lifetime of benefits it brings.

Answers to the second question came from 15 studies and 25,960 children. The results were like those with the mother/child pairs: IQ test scores improved for kids whose diets included seafood.

Some studies with the older kids included behavior as well as cognition and four studies found seafood consumption associated with lower risk for diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Again, none of the studies showed any adverse effects from seafood consumption.

Simplicity Blooms from Complexity’s Bramble

The researchers and those on the DGAC examined an ocean of data. To read their work is to dive into stultifying  complexity.

Happily, the product of their work offers us some easy things to understand. Eating more seafood provides quantifiable long-term benefits and there is no downside to eating lots and lots of fish. Seafood is a superb tool for building a brain.

Here’s my take:

  • Moms to be: Eat more seafood for a healthier and easier pregnancy.
  • Pregnant moms: Eat more seafood to give your child a lifetime of intellectual benefits.
  • Parents: Serve seafood to your children to enhance emotional and intellectual development.
  • Dads: Moms seem to be doing most of the heavy lifting here. Get into the kitchen and cook some fish for dinner tonight.

 Scott Nichols is the founder of Food’s Future, LLC, where he advises businesses to help them create economically and environmentally sustainable aquaculture ventures that provide seafood to an expanding world.  He is a speaker on the role of aquaculture in our future food supply and is a member of the board of directors at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and a scientific advisor to Seafood Nutrition Partnership. You can reach him at scott@foodsfuture.org.

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