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“Effect of diet on the mental performance of children”

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Food for the brain

EU-funded researchers investigated links between the mental performance of European children and diet. Results have shed light on the influence of maternal diet and early nutrition on long-term cognitive and mental disorders.

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Current evidence on the effect of diet on mental performance is largely based on animal, retrospective and short-term nutritional intervention studies in humans. To obtain more valid results, robust experimental studies in humans are required, backed by modern prospective observational studies and molecular techniques. The EU-funded NUTRIMENTHE (Effect of diet on the mental performance of children) project worked on providing insight into the role, mechanisms, risks and benefits of specific nutrients and food components on the mental performance of children. The project integrated key epidemiological studies with large cohorts in the EU (Generation R, ALSPAC) and intervention studies during pregnancy and early life (CHOP, NUHEAL), between others. Neurocognitive development of offspring was found to be dependent on regular fish and adequate folate and iodine intake during pregnancy. Higher dietary fish intake of women during pregnancy (>300 g/week) is associated with improved behaviour in children at the age of 6-7 years and cognitive functions at 8 years. For better child Intelligence Quotient (IQ), importance of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) in diet during pregnancy was also highlighted; also selective benefits of LC-PUFAs on children’s IQ depending on Fatty Acid Desaturase 2 (FADS2) gene polymorphisms (present in ≈30% of the EU population) were demonstrated; these individuals are unable to produce enough quantity of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), both very important LC-PUFAs for neurodevelopment. So, the studies performed within NUTRIMENTHE demonstrated that a correct LC-PUFAs intake should be guaranteed during early life for a better neurodevelopmental outcome of children. Maternal folic acid supplement use in early pregnancy significantly reduced the risk of childhood behavioural problems; low folate during pregnancy can have long-term effects on brain growth and development. Folate supplementation and an adequate AA/DHA ratio during pregnancy improve children’s attention at 8-9 years. Other maternal nutrient factors, including proteins, vitamins, iron and zinc, were also assessed for their effect on the mental status of 'normal' children. Analysis of several cohorts conclusively demonstrated that children need to consume at least two fish meals per week that are rich in fatty acids to ensure good neurodevelopment. A key finding is the fact that low protein content in infant formulas does not affect long-term mental performance. This information is valuable to policymakers while determining the nutritional value of infant products. Research results were widely disseminated through the project website, 72 peer-reviewed publications, magazine articles, press releases, social media and public events. Overall, NUTRIMENTHE findings indicate that better maternal diet, maternal supplementation and breastfeeding improve a child's cognitive skills and increase their chance for a better educational attainment level. The EARLYNUTRITION project and the Early Nutrition Academy is continuing nutrition research and providing training to identify further links between early nutrition and mental health.


Mental performance, early nutrition, diet during pregnancy, behavioural problems, fish intake

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