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Go Nuts: How Eating Nuts During Pregnancy Could Help Your Baby

A team from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health investigated how maternal nut consumption affects offspring—here's what they found.

October 21, 2019

“You are what you eat!” You’ve heard it before, but this frequently-repeated mantra is especially true when you’re pregnant. Until your little one leaves the womb and enters into the outside world, they’ll be eating everything that you eat. This is, of course, why diet is so important during pregnancy. 

In a recently published study, a group of researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found that women whose diets were rich in nuts during the first trimester of pregnancy gave birth to children who had well-developed cognitive function, attention capacity, and working memory. 

Continue reading for more information about:

  • Prenatal and postnatal neurodevelopment 
  • The study, including its method and results

The Ongoing Process of Neurodevelopment 

Neurodevelopment, or the development of neurological pathways in the brain, is critical to a person’s ability to perform a variety of tasks and functions, such as reading, interacting with others, and learning new skills. Because the human brain is extremely complex, neurodevelopment is an ongoing process that starts before birth and continues into young adulthood. 

Prenatal Neurodevelopment

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The transformation from a single-celled zygote to a human newborn is a dramatic and dynamic process. During gestation, the remarkable rate of development, particularly in the brain, is unmatched at any stage of the life span.” During pregnancy, a growing baby undergoes rapid transformation, especially in regard to the development of their brain. 

Illustration of neurodevelopment in the germinal, embryonic, and fetal stages
This illustration depicts a baby’s prenatal journey from a zygote into a fetus and emphasizes how much the brain develops along the way. Image courtesy of VeryWell Mind

Below is an outline of some of the major milestones in a baby’s prenatal development:

  • 16 days after conception: Neural plates begin to form, creating the foundation of the brain and spine
  • Week 6 – 7: Neural tube closes and forms three sections—the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain
  • Week 16: Baby begins to develop the ability to suck and swallow
  • Week 25 – 26: Brainstem is almost fully matured, and the nervous system is developed enough that the baby is able to respond to outside noises
  • Weeks 27 – 40: Baby’s brain begins to develop grooves, and the cerebellum—responsible for motor control—will increase almost 30-fold

Postnatal Neurodevelopment 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention writes that “although the brain continues to develop and change into adulthood, the first 8 years can build a foundation for future learning, health, and life success.” 

Toddler plays with toys, unknowing learning new skills
Toddlers learn by playing, which is why a lot of toys incorporate different skills, such as fine motor skills, into their designs. 

Rapid neurodevelopment takes place throughout childhood. During these formative years, children are constantly learning new skills and advancing cognitively. The following a few developmental milestones that a child should experience within their first five years: 

  • Two months: Paying attention to faces, smiling, turning head toward sounds, following movement with eyes 
  • Six months: Recognizing faces, responds to own name, show curiosity in news things, likes to play with others   
  • One year: Is shy or nervous around strangers, uses simple gestures like waving, follows simple directions
  • 18 months: Knows what ordinary objects (phones, cups, spoons, etc.) are, scribbles with a writing utensil, points to get others’ attention
  • Two years: Can sort shapes and colors, completes simple phrases in familiar books, says short sentences with two to four words 
  • Three years: Can work more complex toys (buttons, levers, moving parts, etc.), completes simple puzzles with three or four pieces, dresses and undresses self
  • Four years: Starts to understand time, can remember parts of a story, can sing a song or repeat a poem by memory, can use scissors
  • Five years: Can count 10 or more things, can print some letters and numbers, wants to copy friends or family members, can tell a simple story using full sentences

The Study: “Maternal nut intake in pregnancy and child neuropsychological development up to 8 years old” 

Previous studies have found that in addition to being nutritious, nuts have many health benefits, including reducing the risk of hypertension, oxidative stress, and diabetes. Furthermore, research has suggested that nuts might be able to help prevent cognitive decline in the elderly. However, few have studied the effects of nuts on neurodevelopment and no investigation has looked into how maternal nut consumption during pregnancy can affect offspring in this regard. This absence of data led a group of researchers to analyze the impact of eating nuts during pregnancy on a child’s neuropsychological development. 

A plate of peanuts is full of nutritional value
Nuts are also a good source of fat, fiber, and protein and contain a lot of vitamins and minerals, like magnesium and vitamin E. 

Method 

The study featured 2208 mother-child pairs and analyses that took place during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy and after the birth of the child, as well as at 18 months, five years, and eight years of age. While they were pregnant, the mothers’ nut intakes were recorded using a food-frequency questionnaire, taking into account the following nuts:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Pine nuts
  • And hazelnuts

In order to assess the neurodevelopment that had taken place in the child, the researchers used the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, the McCarthy scales of Children’s Abilities, the Attention Network Test, and the N-Back test. 

Results 

The children who showed the most significant results were those whose mothers had reported the highest levels of nut-intake—a weekly average of three 30-gram servings, which is just a little less than the Spanish Society of Community Nutrition’s average recommended consumption (between three and seven 30-gram servings per week). 

Although the study considered nut consumption during both the first and third trimesters, the researchers found that consumption levels that took place in the first trimester yielded the strongest results. According to the researchers, the results from the study “indicate that nut intake during early pregnancy is associated with long-term child neuropsychological development.” 

A Case That Still Needs Cracking

Because this was the first study of its kind, more research must be done before any definitive advisement can be made in regard to maternal diet and nut consumption. However, the researchers hope that their findings will facilitate more investigation into how eating nuts during the first trimester of pregnancy can positively affect the baby’s neurodevelopment.

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