This Is the #1 Best Pregnancy Diet for Your Baby’s Health, Says New Study

Updated: Nov. 27, 2023

A nutrition expert confirms how two particular foods may benefit a child years after birth. Here's a belly full of delicious science.

If you’re expecting, chances are good that a few specific questions run through your mind daily: One is probably how much your baby is growing! Another may be whether you’re eating all the right foods to help your little one’s body develop and give them the greatest chance at a healthy and fulfilling life. There are hundreds of books on healthy pregnancy diets, but now science suggests one well known nutrition plan—which already wins major health points for other age groups—can seriously support a child’s growth during pregnancy, too.

First, an important point: In no way do we suggest that “dieting” in terms of restricting food is the way to go during pregnancy. Momma’s gotta eat! Especially foods that are key for the health of the pregnant adult and the unborn child throughout all nine months. That said, science shows there are some foods that are ideal for a pregnant parent to consume to take care of both precious bodies they’re responsible for.

And now, a new study has found that following a Mediterranean style of eating is the best pregnancy diet for an expectant parent. The logic has a lot to do with the child’s long-term brain health.

To better understand the study, The Healthy @Reader’s Digest spoke with Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, who happens to be a partner with the California Walnut Commission, about why new science is saying a Mediterranean style of eating is the best pregnancy diet to follow.

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What the study says

The August 2023 study, published by JAMA Network Open (which is a journal of the American Medical Association), was a randomized clinical trial that evaluated the neurodevelopment of 626 children two years after birth.

The researchers divided the pregnant mothers (and eventually their children) into three different study groups based on fatty acid intake (low, medium, and high intake). Fatty acids are frequent players in the Mediterranean diet, specifically coming from sources like oily fish (think salmon and anchovies), olive oil, flaxseeds, eggs, and walnuts. Groups asked to follow a higher fatty-acid diet were given two liters of extra virgin olive oil and 450 grams of walnuts to consume each month.

The researchers used different biomarkers to assess fatty acid intake for each pregnant mother to track progress as they complied with the diet. The scientists also met periodically with the participants, as did trained nutritionists.

Two years following birth, the research team evaluated the intellectual skills (referred to as “cognitive domain”) of children in each group. They discovered that those whose mothers had followed the Mediterranean diet had higher cognitive domain scores, as well as a higher score for the social-emotional domain. These scores were determined by the Bayley-III test, which is employed to evaluate a child’s development.

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Specifically, eating two foods made a big difference

Those two foods were walnuts and olive oil. These particular fares reportedly led to study results that echoed previous research which had shown how the particular fatty acids in these foods benefit brain health and development.

A 2021 randomized controlled trial in Frontiers in Pediatrics found that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) intake—an essential fatty acid found in walnuts—will increase omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid tissue in adolescents, which can enhance neuropsychological development.

“Walnuts are a unique nut because they are the only nut that is an excellent source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids,” Manaker explains. “Walnuts may have anti-inflammatory effects due to their high ALA content. And data shows negative effects chronic inflammation can have on fetal brain development.”

The 450 grams of walnuts participants ate in a month equates to half an ounce of walnuts per day. Manaker says incorporating walnuts can be as simple as tossing them into a salad, pairing them with a piece of fruit for a snack, or dipping them in dark chocolate for a sweet treat. They also make for a great topping on a bowl of oatmeal or chia seed pudding. READ: 10 Meals to Make With Walnuts

Meanwhile, extra-virgin olive oil has also been linked to cognitive health, as well as cardiovascular and metabolic wellness, contributing to a healthier heart and lower risk of metabolic illnesses like diabetes.

From this study, it is unclear whether one of these two foods can be consumed alone without the other to reach the same benefits. Unless you have an allergy or intolerance for either one, the science suggests you regularly enjoy both during pregnancy.

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Research confirms the Mediterranean diet may be the best pregnancy diet to follow

While this study specifically focused on the fatty acids that come from walnuts and olive oil, in general, science has shown the Mediterranean diet has many positive effects including during pregnancy.

“For those who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, the Mediterranean diet has shown to improve fertility and pregnancy outcomes,” says Manaker. “Recent research found that following a Mediterranean diet during preconception and pregnancy was associated with a reduced risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.”

Manaker also points out that although the Mediterranean diet generally works well for child-bearing adults, it’s also important to work closely with an integrated healthcare team on a nutritious pregnancy diet that works best for you and your child.