Mothers-to-be who eat seafood each day ‘are less likely to have children with ADHD’
- Children whose mothers ate four servings of fish a week had a 16% better score
- Fatty or ‘oily’ fish, such as salmon and mackerel, is the most beneficial
- They are rich in nutrients which help brain development – crucial for later life
Mothers-to-be who eat lots of seafood are less likely to have children who struggle to pay attention, a study has suggested.
Scientists also uncovered rates of ADHD were lower among children whose mothers consumed plenty of seafood in pregnancy.
Researchers based at The Barcelona Institute for Global Health looked at the diets of hundreds of mothers and their children.
Their research flies in the face of NHS advice, which says mothers-to-be should not eat more than two portions of oily fish a week because it can be toxic.
Results showed eight-year-olds of mothers who consumed four portions each week scored 16 per cent better on tests of their attention span.
Youngsters whose mothers ate a portion of fish every day scored 24 per cent better, compared to those whose mother just had one portion each week.
Their risk of ADHD, which can cause hyperactive behaviour and isn’t always to blame for poor attention spans, was also slashed by up to 16 per cent.
Oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are the most beneficial because they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which aid brain structures in the womb, researchers said.
Pregnant women who eat seafood regularly, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, are more likely to give birth to children who are more attentive at school
Consumption of various types of seafood were investigated by the research team, who looked at 1,641 mother/child pairs.
The mothers completed numerous questionnaires about what foods they ate from a list of more than 100 items and how often.
One serving of fish was measured as 115 grams, which is roughly the weight of one fillet of salmon.
Data on the dietary habits of children were collected using the same questionnaire at one, five and eight years of age.
Parents reported symptoms of ADHD using the Revised Conners’ Parent Rating Scale Short Form when their child was eight years of age.
It was at this age the children also completed the Attention Network Task (ANT), a computer-based test.
It measures aspects of attention – in this study, error and speed – by requiring the child to press keys in response to an action on the screen.
Results showed the apparent attention-boosting effects were only found in children whose mothers consumed at least four servings a week.
Scores were higher in children whose mothers preferred fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, or lean fish, such as cod or haddock, compared to mothers who relied on canned tuna or shellfish.
Dr Jordi Júlvez, lead author of the study, said the consumption of seafood during the first trimester of pregnancy had a greater effect on attention capacity.
Little effect was noted among children who consumed seafood regularly aged five, or for mothers who consumed lots of oily fish later in pregnancy.
This, he claims, is because brain development during the early stages of pregnancy is more crucial.
WHAT DO DIETITIANS SAY ABOUT EATING FISH IN PREGNANCY?
The NHS states: ‘Eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby, but you should avoid some types of fish and limit the amount you eat of some others.’
The body state avoiding more than two portions of oily fish a week as it can contain pollutants like dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Tuna should also be limited to two steaks or four medium-sized cans per week because it contains mercury.
Shellfish – including mussels, lobster, crab, prawns, scallops and clams – should always be eaten cooked and not raw when pregnant, as they can contain harmful bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning. Cold pre-cooked prawns are fine.
Smoked fish, which includes smoked salmon and smoked trout, is considered safe to eat in pregnancy.
It’s fine to eat raw or lightly cooked fish in dishes like sushi, as long as any raw wild fish used to make it has been frozen first.
This is because, occasionally, wild fish contains small parasitic worms that could make you ill. Freezing kills the worms and makes raw fish safe to eat. Cooking will also kill them.
Sushi from shops should be fine to eat because the fish would normally have been frozen before preparation.
Nichola Ludlam-Raine, a dietitian and member of the British Dietetic Association, said: ‘My advice to pregnant women would be to enjoy oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and pilchards no more than twice a week for the heart and brain healthy omega 3 essential fatty acids, in addition to white fish such as cod and haddock, which are excellent sources of protein too, within the context of a healthy and balanced diet.’
Brain development takes place mainly in pregnancy, through complex biological processes such as the formation of cells and the pathways between them.
Oily fish contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are nutrients thought to play a fundamental role in these processes.
Dr Júlvez said: ‘Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are the main omega-3 PUFAs involved in neurological development, and seafood is the main source of both of them.’
The NHS urges pregnant women to avoid more than two portions of oily fish a week as it can contain pollutants like dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Tuna intake should also be limited to two steaks or four medium-sized cans per week because it contains mercury, officials say.
Nichola Ludlam-Raine, a dietitian and member of the British Dietetic Association, said the findings are not strong enough to warrant change in UK guidelines.
She told MailOnline: ‘Although this was a fairly big study, it was conducted in Spain, and in general Spanish diets are very different to those in the UK. The data was also self-reported, which in itself could have flaws.
‘The authors of the study also warn that previous research have reported a link between the consumption of fish during pregnancy and childhood obesity and increased blood pressure.
‘My advice to pregnant women would be to enjoy oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and pilchards no more than twice a week in addition to white fish such as cod and haddock, which are excellent sources of protein.’
The researchers focused on attention function because attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) is common at school age.
A person with ADHD is less able to sit still, follow directions or concentrate. A possible cause, according to the Mayo Clinic, is problems during key moments of development in the central nervous system.
Around five per cent of children in the UK and US are believed to have ADHD.
The researchers also found genetic variations affect how well children can process fatty acids, and hence develop healthy attention spans.
Dr Júlvez said: ‘Children with, for example, the rs1260326 CC genotype – which has been associated with lower PUFA levels – had worse attention scores if their mothers had not eaten much seafood during pregnancy.
‘But their outcomes improved if their mothers consumed more seafood.’
The team insist on the need for more research on this subject to determine exactly which species of fish and what quantities may be beneficial to foetal development.
The findings were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
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