The Mediterranean diet aroused the interest of researchers decades ago when it was observed that countries in northern Europe and the United States had a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease than those in the Mediterranean basin, and they came to the conclusion that the type of diet typical of this area, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and low in refined sugars, has important health benefits, especially in coronary heart disease and diabetes. So much so that this diet has been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco, recognised by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The basic principles of this diet are olive oil, oily fish, fruit and vegetables, pulses and nuts, cereals, and as the main source of protein, dairy products, eggs and poultry, and to a lesser extent other meats and animal fats.
During pregnancy it is necessary to provide certain macro and micronutrients that are essential for the normal development of the foetus, of which the most popular are folic acid, iodine, vitamin D and B12, calcium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids, and the Mediterranean diet is a great combination of foods rich in all of them, which makes it ideal for the proper development of pregnancy. There are even studies that show that the Mediterranean diet throughout pregnancy not only reduces the risk of pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes or a lower weight gain, but also has a positive effect on children, reducing the risk of bronchiolitis and asthma.
In addition to calcium and vitamin D, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, such as decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are essential for the development of the foetal nervous system, increasing the generation of neurons, the synapses between them and myelination. This is published in a study which shows that a diet rich in fish during the first trimester of pregnancy improves the attention span of children assessed at the age of 8. In the same vein, there is another interesting study on nuts, also rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids and folic acid, which shows that their consumption in the first trimester of pregnancy is related to better cognitive function, attention span and working memory in children assessed at 1.5, 5 and 8 years of age.
Olive oil is the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet. It is rich in oleic acid, vitamin E and other antioxidants, helping to prevent hypercholesterolemia and pre-eclampsia, improving defences and metabolic control of glucose, preventing gestational diabetes.
There are other essential micronutrients in the formation and development of the foetus, as can be found in the complete Pregnancy Nutrition Guide published by the Spanish Obesity Society, such as folic acid, which is essential to prevent neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly) and to prevent premature birth. It is present in green leafy vegetables (spinach, chard), green asparagus, broccoli, pulses, fruit, nuts and wholegrain cereals. Vitamin D, present in oily fish and dairy products, but which requires the action of the sun for its correct metabolism, helps to increase the absorption of calcium, whose requirement is greater. Vitamins B6 and B12 are also necessary for the development of the nervous system and foetal growth in general and are involved in carbohydrate metabolism. They are found in meat, fish, nuts and legumes. Vitamin B12 is obtained from animal foods, so in vegetarian diets it should be supplemented. Vitamin C is involved in the processes of growth and tissue repair in the foetus. It also improves iron absorption and the immune system of the pregnant woman. It is mainly found in fruit and vegetables, preferably fresh and raw.
The intake of iron and calcium is essential because the baby has a high requirement for the formation of its organs, blood and bones, and because in childbirth we face a moderate loss of blood for which we must prepare ourselves. We obtain calcium from dairy products, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and iron from meat, offal, clams, cockles and mussels. Iodine is essential for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, responsible for the basal metabolism of pregnant women, and its deficiency influences the development of the child’s nervous system and is present in shellfish, seaweed and iodised salt.
According to this exhaustive review, a good Mediterranean diet guarantees the nutrients necessary for the correct development of the child’s nervous system.