A table with Mediterranean-style dishesShare on Pinterest
Experts say a Mediterranean diet provides a number of health benefits during pregnancy. Vera Lair/Stocksy
  • A Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, lean proteins, fish, and olive oil.
  • In a new study, researchers report that children born to mothers who adhered to a Mediterranean diet during pregnancy had better neurodevelopment at the age of 2.
  • Experts say a Mediterranean diet is healthy in pregnancy, but some kinds of fish high in mercury should not be eaten.

A Mediterranean diet during pregnancy significantly improves the neurodevelopment of children through the first 2 years of their life.

That’s according to a study published today in the journal JAMA Network Open.

In it, researchers report that children born to mothers who followed a Mediterranean diet in pregnancy had better cognitive and social-emotional scores.

“The association between maternal diet and offspring neurodevelopment has been suggested by several epidemiological studies. It has been proposed that several dietary components may mediate changes in inflammatory status interfering with brain development in utero,” the study authors wrote.

“The positive findings in our study may be explained by the use of a healthy dietary pattern instead of supplementation with a specific nutrient… several dietary components, including long-chain polysaturated fatty acids, monosaturated fatty acids from extra virgin olive oil, antioxidant vitamins, dietary fiber, and polyphenols, may explain the effects of the Mediterranean diet on reducing inflammatory and oxidative stress markers,” they added.

The findings come from a study that involved examining the impact of both the Mediterranean diet and mindfulness-based stress reductions during pregnancy.

In all, 1,221 pregnancies between 19 to 23 weeks gestation were randomly allocated to three groups.

One group of participants followed the Mediterranean diet intervention, another followed the mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention, and one was given no intervention.

Researchers reported that women in the Mediterranean diet group followed that eating pattern for roughly 11 to 13 weeks. During this time, they underwent 30-minute visits with a trained nutritionist once a month as well as a 1 hour group session once a month.

During their visits with the nutritionist, the women were given recipes, a shopping list, meal plans, and daily menus.

The researchers assessed 626 children from these participants at about 2 years of age.

The researchers reported that, compared with children whose mothers were part of neither intervention group, the children whose mothers followed the Mediterranean diet scored higher in both the cognitive and social-emotional domains.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior clinical dietician at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles who was not involved in the study, says the findings make sense.

“It does not surprise me. So much brain development occurs in utero and in the first few years of life, so it makes total sense that a very healthy anti-inflammatory diet that is primarily plant-based and filled with very healthy fats would result in better neurodevelopmental outcomes. I think it shows that healthy diets can have big effects on health outcomes later in life,” she told Medical News Today.

Previous research has established that maternal lifestyle can have a significant impact on the health outcomes of babies.

“Prenatal well-being and health are strong determinants of future child and adult neurodevelopment. Maternal lifestyle is recognized as a potentially modifiable risk factor for adverse perinatal outcomes and fetal neurodevelopment. Unhealthy high-fat dietary patterns and periconceptional obesity are associated with poorer neurodevelopment in the offspring,” the study authors wrote.

“Previous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may reduce the incidence of health adverse outcomes, such as cardiovascular events, diabetes, cognitive declines, and other inflammatory-based diseases in high-risk adults.”

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and limits intake of red meat, dairy and highly processed foods.

“The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains that are abundant in many of the vitamins and minerals that have increased need in pregnancy as well as provide antioxidant effects. Further, the emphasis on fish with omega 3 fatty acids promotes cognitive development in the infant,” Lauri Wright, PhD, the president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

“A pregnant woman has an increased requirement for protein, calories, fat, and many vitamins and minerals to support the infant’s growth,” she said. “To meet those increased requirements, a woman should include more fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grain and dairy, which is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet.”

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advises that pregnant women carrying a single fetus should add an additional 340 calories every day from the second trimester.

Those carrying twins should add 600 extra calories a day and those carrying triplets should eat an extra 900 calories a day.

While fish is featured in the Mediterranean diet, pregnant women should avoid eating some types of fish that are known to have higher levels of mercury, a metal that has been linked to birth defects.

ACOG recommends that pregnant women not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, tilefish or bigeye tuna. White or albacore tuna should be limited to only 6 ounces a week.

Servings of fish should be limited to two to three 4 ounce servings a week, the organization states.

Getting enough vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, vitamins C and D, calcium, iron, folic acid, choline, and omega-3 fatty acids is also important.

“First and foremost, pregnant women need to take a prenatal vitamin each day. The diet plan should include at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables. The diet plan should include at least three servings of dairy of dairy-substitute to support mom and baby’s bone health. Including lean proteins to support muscle development is also important,” Wright said.

Those experiencing morning sickness may find it helpful to eat smaller meals more often.

“If you experience morning (or all day) sickness as I did for nearly all nine months, do your best to get all your nutrients in when you can,” Hunnes said.

“Women (and men) should always aim for a healthy diet, at any and every time in their life, but especially while pregnant women should aim to eat as healthy a diet, as minimally processed as possible, and always speak with a dietitian or [obstretician] about it,” she added.