Better Breastmilk = Smarter Kids
Better Breastmilk = Smarter Kids
The Omega 3 fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a key building block for a baby’s brain and nervous system, this essential fat naturally occurs in fat from animals that primarily eat plants (grass fed cows and lamb, wild fish, game).
Some plants – flax, walnuts – provide abundant precursors DHA in the form of another type of Omega 3, Alpha-linoleic acids.
Research Shows Importance of Mom’s Nutrition on Baby’s Brain
An amazing study from UCSB analyzed fatty acid contents of human milk samples from 28 countries and compared them to the eventual test scores in mathematics, reading, and science for the children consuming natural breast milk with differing ratios of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, Omega-3) and linoleic acid (LA, Omega 6) naturally occurring in those women’s milk due to their diet.
The impact on health of this ratio of turns out to be incredibly important information for expecting moms: In the breastfeeding moms, tests determined specifically ratio of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, Omega-3) and linoleic acid (LA, Omega 6) in breast milk; the results were that all test scores for children later in life on standardized intelligence tests were positively related to milk Omega 3’s (DHA, 22:6n-3), and negatively related to linoleic acid (LA, 18:2n-6).
Omega 3 to Omega 6 Ratio is Crucial for Your Baby
So, the more Omega 3s you accumulate over your long-term diet and the fewer Omega 6’s, the better positioned your baby’s brain is for future excellence (in standardized tests). For reference, the ratio of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, Omega-3) and linoleic acid (LA, Omega 6) in breast milk is not determined by the mom’s diet “day of” the milk expression, rather they develop over a long-term diet (sadly you can’t “fix” a lifetime of primarily eating fat from seed oils with a couple fish oil pills).
This study shows that those of us who have the ability (physically and in terms of life structure) to breastfeed, our nutrition can have a massive impact on the long term outcomes of our child’s health via our own diet. Also, if these fatty acid ratios have such a huge impact on brain health in our fetuses and breastfed babies, they are also likely to have great positive impact on our own ability to repair our own brains during our lifetimes. In animals, data shows conclusively that low brain DHA results in impaired learning and behavior – it is key to visual and cognitive development.
Bioavailablity of Omega 6 is Far Higher than Omega 3
In the US, the bioavailability of all types of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is 30:1, the optimal ratio for health (and baby smarts) is 1:1. Keeping that fat ratio close to optimal is a heck of a lot easier if you are eating grass fed animal fats, where that ratio is built into the nutrition.
What’s concerning to me is that to support your baby (and your own) cognitive health, you have to really aggressively navigate available nutrition in the US – but the deck is stacked against you in terms of the amount of highly processed plant based fats available in today’s diet. Grassfed beef has has 20-30 times more Omega 3s than conventional beef and and a tiny fraction of the Omega 6s – most importantly, it has a 1:1 ratio of 3:6 fats. In absolute terms, fish oil is definitely the most efficient way to load up on DHA, but in terms of maintaining a healthy ratio, avoiding conventional beef and eating grassfed is hugely helpful in maintaining a ratio that supports brain health for your offspring.
Your Body’s Recovery from Childbirth is Also Impacted by Diet
One more related aspect from this same research shows that DHAs for your baby’s brain is achieved via mobilization of fat stores in the lower body during late pregnancy and lactation. When that “mobilized” fat is re-gained after the postpartum period, relatively more is stored in central vs. peripheral depots, resulting in a change in body shape with parity (post-baby tummy). Although Americans are well nourished in terms of total calories, our diet is actually really low in the key nutrients (DHA being high among them – we eat very little wild oily fish and only 1% of the beef consumed in the US is grass fed!). Because our diet is deficient in DHA, researchers think that American women require more fat mobilization to meet the DHA needs of their fetus and infant. What that means is that in the US our poor diet sets us up for greater tummy fat post partum. We go more quickly from Pears to Apples in the US because our bodies are mobilizing fat stores below our waist to access DHAs, which we don’t have enough of in our diet. When we have more DHAs available via our daily nutrition and a better ratio of DHA to seed oils, that Pear to Apple transformation will be less extreme.
- From our Cofounder and Board Chair, Anya Fernald