Researchers from the NUTRIMENTHE project (a research project funded by the European Commission that involves researchers from more than 20 different organizations aiming to educate moms on the mental role that specific nutrients and food components have on a child's development) found that prenatal nutrition programs the long-term health, well-being, brain development and mental performance of children.
The project, in its fifth year, have addressed the influence of prenatal nutrition by studying hundreds of European families. Professor Cristina Campoy, lead researcher for the project, described the need for a long-term study because shorter-term research seem "unable to detect the real influence of nutrition in early life." She added, "NUTRIMENTHE was designed to be a long-term study, as the brain takes a long time to mature, and early deficiencies may have far-reaching effects. So, early nutrition is most important."
So far, they've examined the effect of B-vitamins, folic acid, breast milk (compared to formula), iron, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids on the cognitive, emotional and behavioral development of children from before birth up to age nine.
Researchers have found that folic acid can reduce the likelihood of behavioral issues during early childhood. They've also found that oily fish is also very beneficial — not only for the omega-3 fatty acids but also for the iodine content — because it has a positive effect on a child's ability to read when measured at the age of nine. NUTRIMENTHE researchers also found that parental education level, socioeconomic status and age are all major influences on a child's mental performance because they influence how certain nutrients are processed and transferred during both pregnancy and if a mother breastfeeds.
Campoy said, "It is important to try to have good nutrition during pregnancy and in the early life of the child and to include breastfeeding if possible, as such 'good nutrition' can have a positive effect on mental performance later in childhood. However," she said, "in the case of genetics, future studies should include research on genetic variation in mothers and children so that the optimum advice can be given. This area is relatively new and will be challenging!"
As the NUTRIMENTHE research is ongoing, the results of the most recent study will contribute to the scientific dietary recommendations for pregnant women and children in order to improve their mental performance.
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