Brain food for your unborn baby


Brain food for your unborn baby

by: Beverly Chester | .
Birth Ed. Center of Okinawa | .
published: March 08, 2016

With the joy of pregnancy comes seemingly ceaseless preparation and planning, bringing parents-to-be an overwhelming amount of decisions to make on behalf of their growing baby. One of the most crucial decisions of pregnancy is what mom should eat to ensure the healthiest possible fetal development. Because fetal development is an extremely broad topic, brain development has been specifically chosen for today’s article in order to help narrow the field for discussion. Folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron are three of the necessary thirty-eight nutrients which are essential for a healthy nervous system. A balanced diet of all-natural sources including vegetables, fruit, beans and legumes, whole grains, and quality sources of meat will provide the aforementioned brain-boosting nutrients.

Healthy development of the fetal brain, spinal cord, and nervous system relies heavily on folate, the natural food source of folic acid. Folate is a B-vitamin present in many green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. Whole grain sources of folate include quinoa, wild rice, and amaranth. Legumes and beans that contain folate are lentils, chickpeas, soy-, kidney-, pinto-, navy-, black-, and white beans.

Much like folate, the mineral iron plays a vital role in fetal brain development in the earliest stages of pregnancy and even before conception. Also like folate, this nutrient needs to be present in the soon-to-be mother’s diet even if conception has not yet been achieved. Foods rich in iron include some of the aforementioned legumes and beans: soy beans, black eye peas, lima beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Green leafy vegetables also have high amounts of iron, especially spinach, asparagus, Swiss chard, and turnip greens. Doctors may prescribe pregnant patients a supplement for iron, which can sometimes cause upset stomach, nausea, and cramping. For this reason, a diet comprised of foods that are rich in iron is the easiest and most stomach-friendly way to ensure this nutrient is available for healthy fetal development.

(Important side note: Folic acid supplements and/or iron supplements are often prescribed for pregnant patients, but it is important to note that practicing good nutrition is always the best choice, specifically gaining nutrients from natural fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and quality meat sources. Supplements are intended to be used only to fill in the gaps where food sources fall short.)

The nutrient that is pivotal in the creation of a neuron, the individual cell that comprises the brain, is the omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important in a pregnant mother’s diet during the first two trimesters. Fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, and eel) often top the list when describing foods rich in omega-3. However, there are a plethora of nuts and seeds that contain astronomical amounts of the fatty acid (e.g. pecans, almonds, and walnuts). Two seeds with the highest density of omega-3 fatty acids are growing in popularity in the Western diet: flaxseed (especially when ground into flaxseed meal) and chia seeds.

Flaxseed meal and chia seeds can be added to the diet in a variety of ways. Adding a teaspoon of both seeds to a morning bowl of yogurt or to overnight oats are just two delicious and easy recipes. Chia seeds are an easy addition to fruit smoothies. Due to its gritty texture, flaxseed meal is easily added to foods that are typically coarser in mouthfeel, such as cookie batter. A current popular trend in the postpartum diet is the “lactation cookie,” which usually contains about 2 tablespoons of flaxseed meal per batch, depending on the recipe used. The lactation cookie does not need to be eaten solely for the purpose of postpartum milk production, though. Pregnant or not, male or female, anyone can feast on this delectable treat any time they want a boost in omega-3 fatty acids and B-vitamins!

While there are dozens of nutrients needed to grow a healthy baby, three of the most important brain-boosting nutrients that a mother can eat are folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron. Folate is critical before conception and during pregnancy to ensure proper development of the spinal cord and brain. An appropriate level of iron in the diet helps later in the child’s life with both language and behavioral skills. Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of neurons (the cells that make up a person’s brain), but this nutrient also serves a purpose later in a child’s life: to help reduce the risk of dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, depression, and mental disorders. While there are a number of choices to be made during pregnancy, the decision to begin healthy eating habits is fundamental to the growth of every organ system in the unborn child. A mother who eats a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seeds, beans and legumes, and quality sources of meat will provide a solid nutritional foundation for her growing baby.


Birth Education Center of Okinawa’s Schedule:

  • Thursday, March 10 - What to Expect Postpartum
  • Saturday, March 19 - Birth & Baby Fair and Meet & Greet with JBRN Birth Doulas
  • Monday, March 28 - Breastfeeding 101
  • Wednesday, March 30 - Labor of Love (Lamaze based series) begins
  • Sunday, April 3 - Hypnobirthing Childbirth series begins

Ongoing: Lactation consultations, prenatal yoga, complimentary therapy for labor, infant massage, and childbirth classes.

Connect with local Okinawa moms on Facebook in “Pregnancy & Birth Talk Okinawa”

Japan Birth Resource Network provides evidence based information and mother friendly support throughout Okinawa and Japan.

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