Eating better when pregnant is linked to better baby development

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Femme enceinte qui mange une salade

For pregnant women, eating better is not only linked to personal benefit, but also to better development of the unborn child, confirm the results of the large French ELFE cohort. The children of those who reported eating more fish and fruits and vegetables had better global development and language scores at 1 year and 2 years than the other children. A high consumption of deli meats (raw deli meats are not recommended during pregnancy due to the possible presence of Listeria or Toxoplasma gondii) or processed foods showed the opposite correlation.

Regardless of the method by which diet quality is assessed, it is linked to a better developmental score in children aged 1 to 3.5 years”, says Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain, researcher at Inrae. The work of the research team is based on data from the Longitudinal Study since Childhood (ELFE), the largest French study on child development. It follows 18,000 babies born in 2011, through tests and questionnaires completed each year by the child or his parents. Even before the children were born, the diet of their mothers over the last three months of pregnancy had also been documented and then assessed according to their nutrient intake in relation to ANSES’s recommendations. Each mother-to-be was also categorized according to her dietary profile, such as high in processed foods or balanced.

More fruits and vegetables for the mother, better development for the child

Tested at 1 year for global development, at 2 years for language and at 3.5 years for non-verbal reasoning, the global and cognitive development of more than 11,000 children from the ELFE cohort was assessed by the researchers, and put related to the quality of their mothers’ diet shortly before birth. Even when taking into account the socioeconomic level of the parents, their interactions with the child or the child’s diet, mothers whose diet had been of good quality (for example by eating more fish or fruits and vegetables ) during pregnancy had children with better neurodevelopment, regardless of how diet quality was assessed. “The more fruits and vegetables and fish the mother consumed, the better the scores of children up to 3.5 years”, specifies Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain.

DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS. To enable pregnant or breastfeeding women to optimize their diet, ANSES has published a few specific dietary guidelines:
– Vitamin B9 (folic acid): vegetables and legumes are rich in vitamin B9
– Iron: some meats, fish and seafood are rich in iron
– Iodine: fatty fish, egg yolk and dairy products are sources of iodine

And for breastfeeding women:
– Vitamin C: vegetables and fruits are sources of beta-carotene and vitamin C
– Vitamin A: egg yolk, cheese, butter and fresh cream are sources of vitamin A

In case of cravings, ANSES recommends a fruit and dairy product type snack such as yoghurt or cottage cheese.

Watch out for deli meats and processed foods

Conversely, the consumption of too much deli meats or processed foods was associated with lower developmental scores in 1-year-old children, as well as in 2-year-old children for deli meats. However, this effect was no longer visible at the age of 3.5 years. “We can think that the more time passes, the more other influences compensate or dilute the effect of the mother’s diet.”, interprets Marie-Aline Charles, director of the ELFE study. However, these new data show that the quality of maternal nutrition is not a negligible factor for the good development of the child. “About 10% less risk of presenting clinical neurodevelopmental problems when the pregnant mother’s diet was of good quality”, adds Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain.

The ELFE study, observational in nature (as opposed to an interventional study, where each parameter is controlled by the researchers), does not allow us to conclude that there is a causality between the mother’s diet and the child’s development. “However, some studies show that deficiencies can induce neurodevelopmental problems. There are therefore nutrients beneficial for the development of children which could explain a cause and effect relationship, to be verified in future studies.”, concludes Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain.

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