Nutrition-wise blog

Does eating fish make children smarter?

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. April 11, 2008

The nutritional research linking fish, especially those rich with omega 3 fatty acids, to many potential health benefits continues to grow. The omega 3 fatty acid, DHA, is found in high concentrations in the brain, eyes, and central nervous system. One arena of this research relates to IQ, specifically that of infants and children.

In the past several years, much of the advertising of DHA as it relates to infant nutrition has been done by the infant formula companies. I recognize formula companies for their continued efforts to improve the composition of their formulas — to try to mimic the long list of benefits provided by breast milk.

Although some cognitive (IQ) research results may be promising, in total, no conclusive results indicate that indeed, an algae source of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in infant formula equates to smarter children in the long term. This is especially true when the many possible compounding factors such as mother and infant health, socioeconomic factors, and the many other factors that may impact childhood development are taken into account. This in itself could make for a great discussion — please share your views.

Interestingly, within the past month, 2 studies have been released linking a pregnant woman's diet rich in fish to smarter children in the early months of life up to age 3. The studies looked specifically at a woman's diet during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy — a time of important brain development. Those women who consumed fish during this time had children that performed better on visual and cognitive tests. One study even suggests that fish intake of the mother during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy may provide better cognitive outcomes than that obtained through breast milk or formula after birth.

The researchers acknowledge the potential benefits of their findings but do not neglect to mention the risks of mercury contamination. Current recommendations are that pregnant women limit mercury intake and avoid fish high in mercury, such as swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel. Mercury is a known neurotoxin.

When the recommendations of limiting fish intake were released in 2001, there was a decrease in fish consumption by many pregnant women. Both studies suggest that greater intake of fish, possibly more than the recommended 12 ounces per week (current recommended limit), may be of benefit. However, choosing fish with low mercury content seems to be the best advice.

What do you think — can food make us, more specifically children, smarter?

Would you/do you exceed the current recommendations of more than 12 ounces in a week? What is your threshold of possible risk vs. possible benefit?

To your health,

Katherine

20 Comments Posted

Apr. 11, 2008