As mothers-to-be, we do a lot to encourage the optimal development of the baby during pregnancy. We talk to baby, go to prenatal yoga classes, have tests and checks performed, and listen to classical music. But what about food?
We know that choosing the right foods can bolster health and prevent illness. Nutrition becomes even more important when it comes to the growth and development of babies and young children. As nutrition research advances, we are learning more and more about what it takes to grow a healthy baby. Foods eaten early in life can foster good brain development, while some “healthy” diets may be very damaging.
The brain of a fetus begins to form just three weeks after conception, and grows the most between the 34th and 42nd weeks of pregnancy. Luckily, rare or expensive foods are not required to foster a healthy brain — just a robust and varied diet of whole and nutritious fare.
Here are 10 of the best foods to encourage a healthy brain
Leafy greens: It comes as no surprise that lots of dark green vegetables will be beneficial during pregnancy. Specifically, folate contained in greens such as spinach, kale, chard and collards helps to form the core of a baby’s nervous system and DNA. Antioxidants in greens also help to protect against any damage to rapidly developing cells. Minerals such as magnesium and calcium are also found in leaves, as is a good dose of fiber. Make green veggies a part of every meal. Steaming them lightly and consuming them with fat (like olive oil or coconut oil) will help increase the availability of their nutrients.
Liver: While it may not be the most appetizing food, liver is one of the most dense sources of nutrients to build a healthy brain. Stick with liver from quality sources, like grass-fed organic beef, or wild-caught fish. Here are some suggestions for making this nutritional powerhouse more palatable:
- Add 25 percent liver to 75 percent ground beef and make meatballs or burgers.
- Enjoy some chicken liver paté.
- Take a cod liver oil supplement (ensure that it has been certified heavy-metal free).
Fatty fish: A study from Harvard Medical School showed that babies whose mothers ate more fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy scored better on a mental development test at six months of age. Omega-3 fats are an important building block for a healthy brain, so be sure to eat wild-caught salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines a few times a week. These species of cold-water fish are best, since they are smaller and thus less likely to contain heavy metals or contaminants.
Eggs: These nutrient-rich powerhouses provide vital building blocks for baby’s brain. Choline and cholesterol are among the most important. Animal studies have shown that choline consumption during brain development has a bearing on cognitive function later in life. Pregnant women should consume 450 mg of choline per day, which is the equivalent of the amount contained in four egg yolks. Meat and liver are also sources of choline.
Greek yogurt: Iodine is an important nutrient for brain development. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that iodine deficiency during pregnancy may be the leading preventable cause of mental health problems. Greek yogurt can help meet the need for this nutrient by providing between 50 and 100 mcg in a serving. Fresh cranberries and a kelp supplement (or consuming whole seaweed) will also help meet the requirement for iodine, which is 140 mcg per day. If you choose to use a supplement, speak with your health-care practitioner to ensure that it’s safe for your particular situation.
Brazil nuts: Just one or two brazil nuts eaten daily will help meet the requirement for selenium, another vital nutrient for baby’s brain development. Eggs and seafood are also good sources of selenium.
Pumpkin seeds: Along with other seeds like flax, chia and hemp, pumpkin seeds are a great source of minerals like zinc. The human brain contains large amounts of zinc, the role of which is still being researched. Zinc deficiency during pregnancy and breastfeeding has been linked with nervous system abnormalities, so ensure you get enough through foods like pumpkin seeds, oysters and grass-fed beef and lamb.
Sweet potatoes: Orange and yellow vegetables like sweet potatoes contain a plant form of vitamin A called beta-carotene. This nutrient is important for healthy brain formation. Be sure to incorporate lots of these colorful vegetables into your pregnancy diet.
Avocadoes: We can’t get enough of these delicious fatty fruits. Since fat makes up a large percentage of the human brain, avocados are a perfect food to support healthy growth. They provide fatty acids, which are the raw materials for structures that protect and insulate the central nervous system. Try eating an avocado a day during pregnancy for solid energy and nutrition.
Coconut oil: Another one of our favorite foods comes into its own during pregnancy. The fatty acids found in coconut provide the perfect building blocks for healthy cells, including those found in the brain. Breast milk production is also supported by coconut oil consumption. Finally, this helpful oil fights off infections and provides a source of fuel for the baby’s rapidly growing brain.
“Healthy” diets to avoid during pregnancy
Ultra-low carb: While cutting down carbohydrates might be a great way to maintain a lean figure, pregnancy is not the time to skimp too much on this macronutrient. Consuming fewer than 75 to 100 grams of carbohydrates per day can put stress on a woman’s hormonal system, thus encumbering baby’s development. We recommend sticking with a generous consumption of whole-food carbohydrate sources, like sweet potatoes, squash, other fruits and vegetables, nuts, and coconut.
Vegetarian or vegan: Since animal-based vitamins, fats and proteins have proven so important for brain and organ development, we don’t recommend excluding these foods during pregnancy. Invest in good quality, consciously-sourced animal foods to foster optimal growth for baby.
Avoid medications to encourage healthy brain development
If pregnancy might be a plan for the future, re-examining any prescription or over-the-counter drugs will be necessary. Many medications for pain, sleep, depression and anxiety have an effect on chemicals and transmitters within the brain, which may carry through to the brain of a fetus. It is also important to note that strong pain medications can affect a baby’s brain by causing addiction and withdrawal symptoms. We recommend discussing any pharmaceuticals, dietary changes or supplements with a trusted practitioner before trying to become pregnant.
Committing to good nutrition is the best way that you can take control of your wellness during pregnancy, and help ensure a healthy future for your baby. Learn more about nutrition for babies.
—The Alternative Daily