Northern Canada’s Inuit people are onto something. The indigenous group’s diet consists mostly of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may play a crucial role in fetal development, according to a new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics. Researchers from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and Laval University in Quebec, Canada, collected umbilical-cord blood from 109 newborns. The babies whose cord blood contained higher concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 found in fatty, cold-water fish such as tuna and salmon, experienced increased visual acuity—the ability to see fine details—at age 6 months and increased cognitive and motor development at age 11 months.
“Levels of DHA in the American diet are relatively low—lower than in Europe and lower than the Inuit,” says Joseph Jacobson, PhD, professor in Wayne State University’s departments of psychiatry and behavioral science neuroscience and lead author of the study. “These data suggest that there could be some real benefits to supplementing with fish oil during pregnancy, which would increase the DHA available to the fetus.”
DHA is particularly important during the third trimester, when a fetus’s brain and nervous system grows rapidly. Currently there is no FDA-recommended daily value for DHA. In 1999, however, researchers working with the National Institutes of Health and the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids suggested that pregnant and lactating women take 300 mg per day. However, pregnant women should avoid eating fish that contain high levels of mercury, including shark, swordfish, tuna, and tilefish.