Virtually all infant formulas sold in the U.S. contain DHA and ARA, essential fatty acids occurring in breast milk that studies suggest promote brain and eye development. It’s in no small part thanks to Tom Brenna, Ph.D.: The Food and Drug Administration, in approving the addition of DHA and ARA to formulas in 2001, cited his research.
A professor of pediatrics at Dell Medical School since 2017, Brenna’s ongoing work focuses on nutrition and genomics. He’s a co-author of a recent analysis of more than 40 other studies that concluded something surprising: There’s no such thing as too much seafood.
The analysis team, a grassroots group of distinguished researchers, determined that babies of mothers who consume seafood during pregnancy will, on average, have an IQ score that’s 7.7 points higher than babies of mothers who do not eat seafood. In addition, eating four or more ounces — about a serving — of seafood a week is associated with brain benefits throughout childhood. (Disclosure: The team received logistical and travel support from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership. Brenna is a member of that nonprofit’s board.)
Further, the analysis found no adverse effects of seafood consumption on neurocognition, even at the highest levels (as much as 100 ounces per week) — a discovery that contradicts fears that mercury in fish and shellfish may harm fetal and children’s nervous systems.
The findings anticipate a review by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which will inform the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2020-25 dietary recommendations. Brenna was a member of the 2015 committee.
Only elite athletes can exercise away excess calories.
Brenna is sympathetic to consumers confused by conflicting recommendations for healthy eating.
“I have a news feed,” he says. “Food politics are prevalent, and I don’t know how to tell people something that will resonate amid all the noise. That said, there are some things most experts agree on: Don’t eat a lot of processed food. Consume a variety of foods.
“In terms of general health, exercise is important. But you don’t want to think of exercise as a weight loss strategy, aside from the reality that you’re not eating when you work out. Only elite athletes can exercise their way out of overeating.”
One day, what you eat will be as prescribed as the medications you take.
A nearing frontier in nutrition is nutrigenomics — the study of how food choices affect health in a particular individual, based on that person’s unique genetic makeup.
“As time goes on, we’re going to learn how to tell someone what they should eat,” Brenna says. “We’ll understand how individual bodies react to the chemical composition of foods. Should you eat more or less fish? Should you eat this kind of oil or that kind? And how will your choices affect your risk for chronic disease? Or your cognitive ability?”
Until then, dietary recommendations like the one for seafood will come in broader strokes — a challenge for consumers that Brenna acknowledges and accepts.
“We have to give pregnant women the confidence to consume seafood and the understanding that the details are far less important,” he says.