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The Number One Factor Predicting Childhood Cognitive Performance: Diet

By Christopher Clark
October 3, 2014
The Number One Factor Predicting Childhood Cognitive Performance: Diet image

How important are socioeconomic factors when it comes to your child’s future academic success? According to a 2014 report by Child Care Aware America, annual preschool education costs range from $4,500-$12,000 in the US, depending on the state.1 Although President Obama had proposed a program to improve quality and expand access to preschool for lower and moderate income families, parents assume 60% of these costs.2

While preschool education may set the stage for future academic success, are there far less expensive and more effective measures? According to new research published by William Lassek, M.D. and Steven Gaulin, M.D., diet better predicts infants’ future cognitive performance than economics. Specifically, the omega-3 and omega-6 levels of their mothers’ breast milk.3So, where does prenatal and neonatal nutrition come into play?

By comparing the fatty acid profiles of breast milk from women from 28 countries with math, science, and reading ability test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Lassek and Gaulin determined that increased omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and decreased omega-6 linoleic acid levels most strongly predict higher test scores, with no improvements in predictive power when socioeconomic variables were considered. The Paleo Diet is low in omega-6 while featuring the richest dietary sources of DHA—cold-water, fatty fish, particularly salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and tuna.

Mothers who consume these fish while pregnant and breastfeeding have higher amounts of DHA in their milk. This was demonstrated in a previous study published by the same authors, among others, comparing the DHA breast milk levels of Tsimane women from Amazonian Bolivia with those of women from Cincinnati. The Tsimane women eat traditional diets consisting primarily of locally grown crops, wild game, and freshwater fish. The Cincinnati women, on the other hand, had typical US diets, including high amounts of trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids (abundant in industrial seed oils, including corn oil and soybean oil).

The Tsimane women’s milk was 400% higher in DHA, 260% lower in trans fats, and 84% lower in omega-6 linoleic acid.4 Lead author Melanie Martin said, “Despite living in economically impoverished conditions, Tsimane mothers produce breast milk that has more balanced and potentially beneficial fatty acid composition as compared to milk from U.S. mothers.”5 High levels of omega-6 are just as disconcerting as low levels of omega-3 because increased omega-6 consistently predicts lower test scores, according to the Lassek and Gaulin study.

This is not surprising, considering that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both compete for the same rate-limiting enzymes. In other words, the ratio of dietary omega-6 to omega-3 is vitally important. Eating fatty fish several times per week is ideal, but if you’re not concurrently limiting your omega-6 consumption, especially by eliminating seed oils from your diet, you won’t be absorbing enough of that omega-3 from the fish. From an evolutionary perspective, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be roughly 1:1.6 Modern Western diets, however, typically yield ratios ranging from 10:1 to 30:1.7

According to the latest PISA results, US students lag behind students from 29 other nations in math and 22 in science, respectively.8 Is this the result of consuming too little DHA and far too much omega-6? Of the 300-million-plus acres planted with food in the US, half are devoted to soy and corn. Another 50 million go to wheat, with only 14 million acres reserved for fruits and vegetables.9 While these numbers are sobering and perhaps disempowering, change starts with the individual.

So if motherhood is on the horizon, now is the time to start eating a healthy Paleo Diet. Of particular importance to your child’s future cognitive performance is the elimination of all industrial seed oils from your diet, particularly corn, soybean, canola, sunflower, safflower, and grapeseed oils. At the same time, be sure to consume DHA-rich fish from the cleanest sources possible several times per week. Education is important, but clearly so are prenatal and neonatal nutrition.

Christopher James Clark, B.B.A.
Nutritional Grail


1. Childcare Aware of America (March 2014). Child Care in America: 2014 State Fact Sheets. Retrieved September 28, 2014 from //

2. Mitchell, A., Stoney, L., & Dichter, H. (2001). Financing child care in the United States: An expanded catalog of current strategies. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Retrieved September 28, 2014 from //

3. Lassek, WD., and Gaulin, SJC. (August 2014). Linoleic and docosahexaenoic acids in human milk have opposite relationships with cognitive test performance in a sample of 28 countries. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

4. Martin, MA., et al., (July 2012). Fatty acid composition in the mature milk of Bolivian forager-horticulturalists: controlled comparisons with a US sample. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 8(3). Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

5. University of California at Santa Barbara. (June 9, 2012). Anthropologists finds high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk of Amerindian women. Press release published by Science Daily. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

6. Simopoulos, AP. (October 2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 56(8). Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

7. Ibid, Simopoulos.

8. Layton, L. (December 3, 2013). U.S. students lag around average on international science, math and reading test. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

9. Haspel, T. (February 18, 2014). Farm bill: Why don’t taxpayers subsidize the foods that are better for us? The Washington Post. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from //

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