A new study published in the online edition of the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids has compared the fatty acid profiles of breast milk from women in over two dozen countries with how well children from those same countries performed on academic tests.
The academic test results came from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and there were 28 countries for which the researchers found information about both breast milk and test scores.
The research findings reveal that omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in a mother’s milk, a fat found primarily in fish, nuts and seeds is the strongest predictor of test performance; illustrating the crucial relevance of Omega threes. Omega 6 fatty acid levels on the other hand predict lower test scores.
“Human intelligence has a physical basis in the huge size of our brains — some seven times larger than would be expected for a mammal with our body size,” said Steven Gaulin, UCSB professor of anthropology and co-author of the paper. “Since there is never a free lunch, those big brains need lots of extra building materials — most importantly, they need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. Omega-6 fats, however, undermine the effects of DHA and seem to be bad for brains.”
The researchers stress that both types of fatty acids are crucial in a diet. First, because various kinds of fats interfere with one another in the body, breast milk DHA shows how much of this brain-essential fat survives competition with omega-6. Second, children receive their brain-building fats from their mothers. Breast milk profiles indicate the amount of DHA children in each region receive in the womb, through breastfeeding, and from the local diet available to their mothers and to them after they are weaned.
The issue is a huge concern for women, Gaulin said, because “that’s where kids’ brains come from. “Just like a racecar burns up some of its motor oil with every lap, your brain burns up omega-3 and you need to replenish it every day,” he said.
W.D. Lassek, S.J.C. Gaulin. Linoleic and docosahexaenoic acids in human milk have opposite relationships with cognitive test performance in a sample of 28 countries. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA), 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.plefa.2014.07.017