Proper Nutrition Starts Early: Both Mother’s Pregnancy Diet and Baby’s Diet Can Affect Child's Behavior and Intelligence

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Instead of the adage “You are what you eat” new research suggests that “You are what you and your Mother ate.”  The need for proper nutrition starts while in the womb.  In a new study, Researchers from the Nutri Menthe project and the University of Granada report that nutrition received while in vitro and during early life can “program” children for long term health, brain development, and mental performance.  They stress that certain nutrients are important to this childhood development process.


Belly silhouette

Nutri Menthe Project

The researchers from these findings are part of a long-term longitudinal project called Nutri Menthe.  The Nutri Menthe goal is to gain knowledge as to the role, mechanisms, and the benefits of specific nutrients and food components on the mental performance of children.  It was funded in 2008 and consists of an international forum of scientists from twenty different organizations and 9 world wide countries.

In this five-year study involving more than 17,000 mothers and 18,000 children across Europe, researchers looked at the benefits of targeted nutrients and their effects on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development of children. Detailed findings for this project were presented on September 13 and 14 at the Nutri Menthe International conference in Granada Spain.

Nutrients linked to Mental Development

The researchers focused on the effects of the following nutrients: B-Vitamins, folic acid, breast milk versus formula milk, iron, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids.  Folic Acid is a B vitamin that helps the body make healthy new cells.

The American College of Gastroenterology recommends women take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily for 1 month before pregnancy and 600 micrograms during pregnancy to prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine. Benefits of folic acid can also be seen in emotional and behavior development of children.  Dr. Tiemeier explained that the results shown from folate supplementation may protect against emotional and behavioral problems in young children.

Another area of study they focused on was the effect of eating fish on mental development of children.  The American College of Gastroenterology recommends eating at least two servings of fish or shellfish per week while pregnant or breastfeeding. This is due to the Omega-3 fatty acids and iron that are found naturally in many kinds of fish.  Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks for brain cells and iron helps the body make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby.

Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), another Nutri Menthe study, has shown that a higher dietary fish intake is associated with improved behavior in children at the age of 6-7 years.  Iodine content also has a positive affect on reading ability when measured at age 9.


Breastfeeding, if possible, is the best form of nutrition for babies.  Cristina Campoy, the lead coordinator on Nutri Menthe explains that breastfeeding is considered “good nutrition” and it can have a positive effect on mental performance later on in childhood.  Certainly this is not the only study that boasts the benefits of breastfeeding.

In another study, researchers from Brown University claimed breastfeeding benefits babies’ brain development.  In the study, the exclusively breastfed group had the fastest growth in white matter, the tissue that helps different parts of the brain to communicate with one each other. 

Other influences on Mental Performance

Certainly the researchers acknowledge that nutrition in the early phases of life is not the only predictor of cognitive, emotional, mental, and behavioral development in children.  There are other factors that can affect mental performance in children such as parents’ educational level, socio-economic status and age of parents, and the genetic background of the mother and child. The genetic variation in mothers and children is an area of future study for the project.

The work and findings found by Nutri Menthe will serve as a scientific base for dietary recommendations for pregnant women and children for improving mental performance.


University of Granada (2013, September 13). Diet during pregnancy and early life may affect children's behavior and intelligence.

Roza et al., Brit J Nutr 2009; Sttenweg-de Graaf et al., Am J Clin Nutr 2012

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