'We know now that all 'pregnant; women in Canada should eat meals of fish rich in omega-3
Fish will make your baby healthy, study shows
When pregnant women eat a diet rich in fish, their babies get a head start in life, a study on women and their babies in Nunavik shows.
That's because fish – and especially Arctic char – are loaded with fatty substances called omega-3 acids, which help babies' brains grow before and after birth.
"We've learned important things from the traditional Inuit diet," said Dr. Gina Muckle of Laval University.
Muckle's study involved 109 mothers and babies in Puvirnituq, Inukjuak and Kuujjuaraapik. As a result of this work, researchers can now confidently say that all pregnant women should eat more fish during pregnancy.
Their findings are also expected to encourage recommendations that all pregnant women in Canada should take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy.
"The contribution of Inuit mothers and their babies will help form public health recommendations for the whole of Canada," Muckle said. "We know now that all pregnant women in Canada should eat meals of fish rich in omega-3's."
When pregnant women eat a diet with lots of omega-3 acids, especially during the last three months of pregnancy, babies have a heavier birth weight and after birth they can see, think and react better.
"A diet rich in omega-3s during pregnancy can't be expected to solve everything, but our results show that such a diet has positive effects on a child's sensory, cognitive, and motor development," say the researchers whose findings are published in a recent edition of the Journal of Pediatrics.
Public health officials first urged women in Nunavik to eat more Arctic char in 2002.
That's when Muckle first suspected that omega-3 acids might be a key to babies' health.
While conducting research into contaminants, Muckle had examined mercury, lead and PCB levels in umbilical cord blood samples from 109 babies born between 1996 and 2001 along the Hudson Bay. She also took blood, hair and breast milk samples from the babies' mothers.
When the babies were born, Muckle measured their weight, height and head circumference and then tracked their physical growth over the next year. She used simple recognition tests to measure the infants' memory and problem-solving ability at six and a half months and 11 months. She also tested the infants' vision and motor skills like walking and standing.
Muckle made several important findings.
The first was that unborn babies in Nunavik are exposed to two to three times the level of PCBs, two times the level of lead, and significantly higher levels of mercury than babies in southern Quebec.
Secondly, the study showed, after accounting for various other factors, including the mother's social background, drug use and the level of mental stimulation showered on the baby, that each of these pollutants has a specific negative effect on infant development.
But Muckle said the study's third discovery was the most significant: babies exposed to a high level of omega-3 while in the womb are partially protected against the effects of contaminants.
"In spite of everything, omega-3s had a protective effect," Muckle said.
Muckle advises women in the North is to continue eating a wide variety of traditional country foods and especially eat small-sized Arctic char, which have high levels of omega-3s, but fewer contaminants than larger fish.
Her research continues among 300 Nunavik women who participated in some phase of her research project and their children who are now nine to 11 years old.