Many women are not getting enough of a key pregnancy nutrient that could be vital to a child’s brain development, an expert warns, but a quick diet change can help expecting mothers make sure their child gets the substance it needs.
Dr Steven Zeisel, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina, told DailyMail.com that the little-known essential nutrient choline could be key to human brain development, but many are not getting enough of it in utero or in the first few years of life.
He says that research has found that the nutrient is essential in brain development, and that the onus falls on the mother to pass it on through her child – whether while she is carrying the baby or through her breast milk after birth.
Not many know about the importance of choline, though, and that children who do not receive enough of it in their first three years of life score worse on cognitive tests and often have worse attention spans than their peers.
An expert says that pregnant women should consume at least 450 mg of choline every day to make sure her baby develops a healthy brain – which can be obtained by eating three eggs daily (file photo)
Zeisel explains that the first 1,000 days of life – or around three years – are when the brain forms. During this period, choline is key to making sure it develops properly.
If the key development does not occur, then it will likely affect the child for the rest of their life.
‘If there is poor development in those early parts of life then the brain doesn’t develop properly, and cognition… at seven years of age is worse,’ he said.
‘School performance in 15 year olds [who did not receive enough choline] isn’t as good.
‘The stem cells that form the brain require [choline] in a critical period of development, and if it isn’t there during that time the structure of the brain isn’t formed normally. After that cognition isn’t as ever good.’
Dr Steven Zeisel (pictured), a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina, told DailyMail.com that choline is a key maternity nutrient that many women are not getting enough of
He also said that children who do not receive enough choline in their early years are more likely to suffer from cleft palate.
Zeisel also noted that research showed that the nutrient can help mitigate some of the damage young children face from fetal alcohol syndrome.
This is a relatively recent discovery, though. He said the first link between the nutrient and brain function was made in 1998, and the Food and Drug Administration did not set recommended daily intake levels of it for pregnant women until 2016.
Because of this, many prenatal vitamins did not include the crucial substance in its ingredient list until fairly recently, as pediatricians have pushed for more of the common multivitamins used by pregnant women to include choline.
Another way to get choline is through food, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) putting together a guide for the amount of choline present in common foods.
Officials recommend that a pregnant woman receive at least 450 milligrams (mg) of the nutrient every day – and ideally somewhere around 900 mg.
Eggs are the greatest source of choline, with the USDA reporting that 100 grams of a whole egg provide 250 mg of choline. One egg alone, Zeisel says, contains around 150 mg.
This means that eating three eggs every day will be enough for a woman to hit her daily intake.
Zeisel notes that many may not be eating as many eggs now as they were in the past, as the breakfast staple has since been relegated because of concerns about high cholesterol.
For those worried about cholesterol, there are still other options to get the daily choline intake.
The USDA notes that eggs are the greatest source of choline, followed by meat and fish, whole grains, cereal, fruits and vegetables and cow’s milk
Red meat and fish are also considered to be excellent sources of the nutrient, with over 75 mg in each 100 g of the food. Other good sources include whole grains, cereal and fruits and vegetables.
Milk can be a great source as well, and especially for young children who regularly drink milk as part of their day-to-day diet.
Zeisel says that parents should make sure their children are drinking cow’s milk, not popular milk alternatives like almond or oat milk that do not contain choline.
Mothers themselves should make sure they are consuming enough choline as well if they are breastfeeding, as the nutrient is passed on through the breast milk to their nursing baby.
The FDA also requires baby formula – often used as a replacement for breast milk for mothers who cannot nurse their child for any reason – contains enough choline to match typical breast milk as well.
Women of European origin should be the most vigilant in managing their choline intake while pregnant, Zeisel says, as some may have a genetic mutation preventing their body from naturally producing the nutrient at all.