For Moms & Babies, Fish IS Brain Food After All!

November 11th, 2012

Turns out mother and grandmother really did know best: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should try to eat two servings of cooked seafood per week. Getting the recommended amount of seafood into a mother’s diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding promotes optimal growth and cognitive development of her child.

Today, many understand that seafood is an essential part of a healthy diet. However, what many don’t know is this special importance of seafood in the diet of moms-to-be and a breastfeeding mothers.

Why does it play such an important role in perinatal nutrition? For starters, fish is the major source of omega-3 DHA. Research shows that most women do not get enough of this nutrient, which is essential for the healthy development of the fetus. There is also promising science surrounding DHA and its potential to reduce the risk of early or recurrent preterm delivery, and its potential to aid in the prevention and treatment of antepartum depression. Along with DHA, seafood supplies many other nutrients needed for brain development – such as high-quality protein, vitamin D and selenium – not found in other sources or supplements.

Proper perinatal nutrition has such potential, and the “fish as brain food” concept is really pretty straightforward. The brain is largely composed of fat and water. These elements make up the chief components of brain cell membranes and tissues enclosing the nerves. The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, which are called eicosapentenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexenoic acid (DHA), are crucial to the brain.  The best way to get these nutrients is through consumption of an adequate amount of seafood.

The evidence for safe consumption of seafood during pregnancy has been exhaustively reviewed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), consistently showing the positive effect of seafood consumption by pregnant women on visual and cognitive development in their infant. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans confirm and emphasize that pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume two servings (four to eight ounces each) of fish per week to promote optimum fetal and neonatal development.

My colleagues and I are passionate about this science and have been discussing it as a group for a number of years. Our Perinatal Nutrition Work Group is made up of respected physicians, registered dietitians and research scientists in the fields of omega-3 DHA nutrition, obstetrics and pediatrics. Our white paper represents a comprehensive review of the volume of significant studies conducted over a long period of time.

My fellow researchers and I are also passionate about sharing this science. So many unknowns surround pregnancy – So when something is identified that can make a very real difference and have a lifelong impact, we want everyone to have access to that information, empowering women to care for their own health and their children’s.

The conclusion is clear. Babies get one chance at brain development. They need omega-3 DHA, and they need to get it from their moms during pregnancy and throughout the first six months of life.

Just like Mom said.


Mary Harris, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at Colorado State University who has conducted clinical trials on the effect of omega-3 DHA on preterm labor and infant neurocognitive development.  A longstanding member of the PNWG and communicating author of the peer reviewed white paper, has more to share.