Dairy product nutrition education has long emphasized the benefits milk’s essential nutrients provide for the body. What has been less well known but is now moving into the spotlight is how important dairy also is for the brain, particularly during a child’s first 1,000 days, which covers prenatal development up until the second birthday.
For humans, key nutrients for brain development during pregnancy include vitamin D, iron, choline, iodine, folate, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), explained Liska Robb during a panel discussion at the World Dairy Summit. The panelists explained that dairy is a valuable source of the first four on that list.
Fortification provides milk with high levels of vitamin D, which a fetus in the womb relies entirely on its mother for. Robb, a lecturer of nutrition and dietetics at the University of the Free State in South Africa, explained that a vitamin D deficiency has been shown in animals to lead to morphological differences in brains.
Iron in a pregnant woman’s diet supports neural energy metabolism and the development of the dendrites and synapses of the fetus’s brain, Robb continued. She said it’s estimated that 37% of pregnant women in the world are anemic, which results from low iron. When fetal iron levels are deficient, the brain cannot develop normally. This damage is generally irreversible, Robb said.
Choline, one of the B vitamins, is the focus of her research. Robb described it as an underrecognized nutrient, even though the American Association of Pediatrics says a choline deficiency can lead to long-term stunting. Choline contributes to the development of the brain’s hippocampus and overall neuroplasticity and can even attenuate some of the neurological damage of alcohol exposure during pregnancy, which is a significant concern in South Africa.
However, 90% of Americans do not consume the recommended amount of choline, Robb described. It is mostly found in animal products, and she narrowed it down even further by saying there are just 10 major food sources of choline — and dairy is one of them. “It’s a very important source of choline in the diet,” Robb advised.
Iodine benefits IQ
An iodine deficiency in pregnant women and babies is a concern for many reasons. Women who are pregnant need more iodine than usual because they have a greater need for thyroid hormone and will lose more in the urine during pregnancy, plus the fetus needs iodine, explained Elizabeth Pearce. Iodine that is not excreted is used to make thyroid hormone, which is critical for brain development, continued the professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, who has researched iodine extensively.
Pearce said an iodine deficiency also raises the rates of miscarriage, stillbirth, and the mother’s death in childbirth. Another serious concern is for the mental development of the baby once it is born. “Inadequate iodine early in life leads to low IQ, particularly verbal IQ,” she explained. That means a baby’s language centers and hearing functions can be impacted. In fact, studies have found IQ to be 8 to 12 points higher in children when iodine deficiencies are corrected. “Still in 2023, iodine deficiency remains the most reasonable solution to intellectual issues,” Pearce added, noting that IQ is what helps societies and economies move forward.
Iodized salt has made the public more aware of iodine deficiencies, but many countries, including the U.S., still have high deficiency rates in pregnant women. Pearce said about half of women of childbearing age never or rarely use salt, so other sources of iodine are needed. “What’s probably the most critical source [of iodine] in the U.S. is dairy,” she advised.
Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products can be good sources of these nutrients and the 13 essential ones we are already familiar with. Nutrition is always important, but it is especially critical for a pregnant woman and once that baby begins its early life. Starting out on the right foot can make a difference for the rest of that child’s life, and choosing highly nutritious foods can help that happen. With dairy products, multiple benefits come together in one package.