Want to Build a Better Brain? Eat More Fish

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's 2020 Scientific Report came out last week. For the first time ever, the committee examined dietary needs of pregnant moms and young children. They concluded that children of moms who eat seafood during pregnancy and also kids who eat seafood early in life receive benefits they'll enjoy for their lifetimes.

Whether it’s kitchen knife or a garden shovel, a goal when buying tools is that they last a lifetime. Last week’s 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 above two years old. In 2020 for the first time, they expanded their view to include pregnant women, lactating moms and toddlers up two years old. 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 deep dive

Much greater detail underlying the DGAC’s conclusion resides in a paper published last October by members of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP) Scientific Advisory Panel (disclosure, I am a member of the SNP panel though not an author on the paper). The paper is a meta-study or a study of studies. It includes 44 peer-reviewed scientific papers. 

They SNP authors posed two questions. 

What is the relationship between maternal seafood consumption during pregnancy and lactation and the neurocognitive development of the infant? 

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 tests different scientists used. 

The effects weren’t trivial. 

Children’s IQ score improved from 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 although the rate at which benefits increased slowed down.  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 over 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 SNP study clearly shows us the risk we should avoid. That risk is limiting seafood and losing the lifetime of benefits it brings. 

Answers to the second question the SNP paper posed 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. 

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

Simplicity blooms from complexity’s bramble

The DGAC and SNP scientists 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 young 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.