Featured article in the Fall 2017 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Rachel Bassler, RDN, CSSD, LDN
Most pregnant women are bombarded with health and nutrition information via handouts from their doctor, advice from friends and family, or pregnancy smartphone apps (confession: I have three). Many times, information is geared towards what foods to avoid like raw meat, fish with mercury, unpasteurized cheeses and alcohol. While this information is extremely important for the health and safety of both mother and baby, it’s also crucial to focus on foods and nutrients that are beneficial during pregnancy.
My mother had a stillborn with anencephaly (a neural tube defect), so throughout my pregnancy, I have focused on getting optimal amounts of dietary folic acid in addition to the folic acid supplement and prenatals prescribed to me by my doctor. This is because folic acid has long been documented to help prevent neural tube defects, one of the most common birth defects.1 Therefore, pregnant women are often advised to increase their intake of this nutrient and mandatory fortification of enriched cereal grain products with folic acid was authorized in 1996 in the United States.2
Additionally, I have focused on other common recommendations for pregnant women, such as proper hydration, getting adequate amounts of protein, calcium and omega-3s, eating a wide variety of foods, etc., but then I thought – what more could I be doing (and eating!) to benefit my baby? And this is when I felt very fortunate to be working at the Egg Nutrition Center. We are constantly reading the latest nutrition research related to eggs and egg nutrients, as well as working with some of the top nutrition scientists at universities across the country. The latest findings are pointing to a role for eggs and egg nutrients on brain development and function. Based on what I’m seeing, I firmly believe that eggs should be on the top of the list of recommended foods for pregnant women.
There are two nutrients found in eggs that have been linked to cognition – choline and lutein. Choline was recognized as an essential nutrient in 1998, so it’s still fairly “new” on many health professional’s radar. However, research has demonstrated that choline is important for fetal brain development, and enhanced memory and cognition (as well as improved cognitive performance in older adults!)3,4 In fact, in June of this year, the American Medical Association (AMA) recommended that choline be added to prenatal vitamins since most pregnant women don’t meet the recommended 450 mg/day. AMA stated that adequate choline intake during pregnancy is not only important to help with fetal brain/spinal cord development but also to help reduce incidence of birth defects, like neural tube defects – so naturally this piqued my interest in the nutrient given my family history. Eggs have one of the highest amounts of choline of any food (unless you love to eat beef liver). Two large eggs contain more than half of the recommended intake for pregnant women.
Lutein is an antioxidant that has long been linked to eye health, but emerging research suggests a role in cognition as well. Similar to how lutein accumulates in the eye, it is also present in the brain. Two recent studies looked at the relationship between brain lutein concentrations and cognition in children.5,6 The researchers found that brain lutein levels were positively associated with academic performance. While more research is needed, the results to date are very interesting to this soon-to-be-mom.
So, while I’ve been following the advice to avoid certain foods during my pregnancy, I never miss my two eggs a day. This gives me peace of mind that I’m providing my baby with choline and lutein to help his or her little brain to grow, as well as other important nutrients like protein and omega-3s. And I hope it’s helping my brain out as well!
1. Policy Statement. Folic Acid for the Prevention of Neural Tube Defects. Pediatrics. 1999;104:325-327. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/104/2/325. Reaffirmed September 2016
2. Crider KS, et al. Folic Acid Food Fortification—Its History, Effect, Concerns, and Future Directions. Nutrients. 2011;3:370-384.
3. Zeisel SH. Choline: Critical Role During Fetal Development and Dietary Requirements in Adults. Annu Rev Nutr. 2006;26:229-250.
4. Ylilauri MPT, et al. Association of dietary cholesterol and egg intakes with the risk of incident dementia or Alzheimer disease: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor StudyAm J Clin Nutr. 2016. Epub ahead of print.
5. Barnett SM, et al. Macular pigment optical density is positively associated with academic performance among preadolescence children. Nutrition Neuroscience. 2017.
6. Walk AM, et al. From neuro-pigments to neural efficiency: the relationship between retinal carotenoids and behavioral and neuroelectric indices of cognitive control in childhood. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2017. E-pub ahead of print.