The Fruit Effect
Research suggests that eating fruit during pregnancy could boost a baby’s brain power

November 21, 2019

Canada’s Food Guide encourages Canadians to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables each day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

A good diet is especially important during pregnancy when an expecting mother and her growing baby both benefit from nutritious food. In addition to eating healthy foods, pregnant women may also be advised to take vitamins, such as folic acid, which is vital to the development of a baby's spine, brain and skull.

Research from the CHILD Cohort Study suggests that eating fruit during pregnancy may boost a baby’s cognitive development. The researchers examined data on the diets of mothers during pregnancy and then analyzed the results of a standard test for mental and motor development conducted with their babies at age one. The test places babies on a points-based scale similar to an IQ test.

The researchers discovered that if pregnant women consumed six or more servings of fruit per day, on average their babies placed six or seven points higher on the developmental scale compared to babies whose mothers ate less than one serving of fruit. It should be noted that they didn’t find a benefit beyond six or seven servings. For women who gave birth to late preterm babies, they found that an extra serving of fruit per day gave the baby the same benefit as being born a week later.

This research also suggested that consuming fruit juice or vegetables during pregnancy may not have the same beneficial effect on infant development as fruit. The study controlled for factors that would normally affect a child’s learning and development such as family income, paternal and maternal education, and the gestational age of the child.

When the researchers dug deeper they identified two specific nutrients that appeared to be responsible for this effect: lycopene, a natural pigment that gives fruits and vegetables, such as grapefruit, watermelon, and tomatoes, a red color; and fructose, the natural sugar found in most fruit and vegetables.

In an effort to explore the fruit effect further they conducted a study with fruit flies, which share 85 percent of the same genes responsible for human brain function, making them useful as a model for studying human learning and memory.

The researchers fed a fruit-enhanced diet and fruit juices to pregnant flies and examined the learning ability of their offspring. The flies whose mothers were given the fruit diet during pregnancy had a significantly better ability for learning and long-term memory as compared to flies whose mothers were fed a standard diet. The fruit effect was similar to the benefit seen in the one-year-old human babies.

While this research supports the benefits of eating fruit during pregnancy, the researchers caution pregnant women against overconsuming fruit, which could lead to excess weight gain or gestational diabetes.

A healthy dose of fruit, as part of a healthy, balanced diet will help sustain a woman’s energy while pregnant and possibly boost her baby’s brain health too!

The CHILD Cohort Study is a national birth cohort study where researchers are tracking the health of nearly 3,500 Canadian children to find ways to prevent asthma, allergies, obesity and other chronic diseases.

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