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Building Brains Requires Fat - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
Building Brains Requires Fat
Yesterday at my OB appointment by doctor asked in passing about post-partum depression. After confirming that I hadn't experienced any before she remarked that I was unlikely to this time around, since previous experience was a good indicator. I noted that I also did not starve myself after birth in a effort to lose weight, which I felt helped a lot. I didn't elaborate a lot on my personal philosophy about what to eat, especially when nursing a newborn, but I figured I'd share here if anyone was interested.

Normally I leave the diet posts to Warren. He's spends way more time and energy on it anyway, and he is far less inclined to indulge in unhealthy non-paleo cheats than I am. On the other hand I'm the one who is about to be nursing two kids at once, so I do have opinions.

Brains are made mostly of fat. Human babies have big brains, and for the first few months after birth those brains are going through a process where the insulation on all those neurons is being built, and that insulation is pure fat. It's not just any fat either, it requires a lot of Omega-3 fatty acid to build. Where does this fat come from? Well, if the baby is nursing it comes from the Mom, and if the mom isn't getting enough of the right kind of fats in her diet, then her body takes what it needs out of her in order to feed the baby, including shrinking her own brain to do it. I'm pretty attached to my brain and more than a little vain about it, so I don't want that happening to me.

So, most women have a baby, and then they have all this extra weight they want to get rid of so the diet. This probably means they follow the typical dieting advice and avoid fats, and when they do get fats the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is way too high because modern agro-business feeds cows and chickens so much corn, and pregnant & nursing women are often discouraged from eating fish because of concerns over mercury. (When I was in the hospital with Duncan I flat out lied about who the swordfish dinner was for, because otherwise I'd have been stuck eating their lean crap.) If a woman is starving herself of what she needs, either because she is trying to lose the baby weight fast or simply because the current western diet doesn't have enough of the right kinds of fats it's no wonder that she might be prone to depression, especially once you throw in the sleep deprivation and general relentless nature of caring for an infant. Personally I'm a lot less concerned about how soon I fit back into my old clothes and a lot more concerned about giving my baby and myself the nutrition we both need for our brains.
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chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: July 19th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
What do you find is a good source of the right fats in addition to fish?
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: July 19th, 2012 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nuts (esp. walnuts), grass-fed beef, and eggs from free range chickens (often marketed as Omega-3 eggs). I also tend to crave duck in the early post-partum period, so I think that might be a good source but I'm less certain about it.
tallou From: tallou Date: July 21st, 2012 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I also find organic dairy (especially grass fed butter) and coconut to be very useful, though those are more controversial. And ideally all the dairy would be grass fed.

And fresh ground flax seeds. (I eat ground almonds and flax seeds with yogurt as cereal)
epicureanangel From: epicureanangel Date: July 19th, 2012 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

My post partum diet

Heh... I avoided sushi during pregnancy, and sent my husband out for my very first dinner after delivery to the nearest sushi takeout place. I ate plenty of fish thereafter, and ice cream too. With nursing, I had no concerns about trying to lose weight.. and I nursed for 2.5 years... I'm pretty sure both kiddo and I had plenty of fat.

- Tammy
pekmez From: pekmez Date: July 20th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC) (Link)
FWIW, I'm pretty sure I've been experiencing (long-term, mild, lasting) postpartum depression after L. It took me a long time to begin to realize this (I had plenty of situational stressors in the first 6 months or so, and it's only now, 21 months out, that I've begun to consider where my brain is and whether I like the steady state it has landed in.) I didn't experience any depression after K. (So I would not assume that you're immune based only on previous experience.)

I made no effort to starve myself and continue to eat plenty of ice cream and baked goods, and non-agrobusiness cows, pork, eggs and chicken as well as fish. I also eat a lot of vegetables and fruit and whole grains, though not a tremendous pile of flaxseed oil or anything.

Nursing, seems to combine with my regular food patterns to lose weight without any conscious effort -- and I lost a lot more weight in the past 21 months than I did in the same time period with K, but lost a lot of weight in both. Could be a symptom of the mild depression, could be a metabolic fluke of another sort, but could also be that the nursing resources have actually been *causing* the depression by taking more of some fats and nutrients that I need for balanced brain health, and the weight loss is another indicator of that. (Another indicator, I'm apparently still/again somewhat anemic, which at least explains the tired.)

Do you actually know of a connection between inadequate omega-3s in the diet and depression?

psychohist From: psychohist Date: July 20th, 2012 04:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Here's a report on a double blind controlled trial that indicates that omega 3 supplements can alleviate at least some kinds of depression - in this case unipolar depression unaccompanied by anxiety disorders:


With respect to dietary sources, earlier studies showed correlations with fish consumption even when sample sizes were insufficient to show a benefit from supplementation, though those were correlational studies. I can't find those earlier studies at the moment, but here's a discussion in a source which may be credible:


In addition to wild salmon and grass finished beef, I also fed Elizabeth lots of organic omega 3 eggs when she was nursing Margaret, which we continue to eat in large quantities. Note that not all eggs labeled "omega 3" actually have much omega 3 in them; we use Organic Valley omega 3 eggs which have at least 200mg of omega 3s per egg, but I've seen other "omega 3" eggs with only a tenth that much, which isn't enough to make a big difference in omega 3 to omega 6 ratios. Our family eats about 4 dozen of high omega 3 eggs per week on average, and about a third of our meat is either grass finished beef or wild caught salmon.
pekmez From: pekmez Date: July 20th, 2012 05:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! Interesting.

We don't eat measured-omega-3 eggs because I'm too much of a taste snob and buy them from our meat CSA or other locally-farmed-super-fresh sources, and we only eat about a dozen a week; someday when we eat eggs from our own backyard I will figure out what they supplement the feed with so we can raise our own fresh-laid high-omega-3 ones. ;-)

We eat a fair bit of pastured beef (pork and lamb, too) from our meat CSA, but only fresh fish about once a week. I've gotten quite lazy about the pickled herring lately, too, and zubatac is more of an anchovy/sardine fan than me - but those are such easy sources of omega-3s that I should just add them to salads anyway.

Since the copious dark leafy greens and red meat we eat has not been giving me enough iron, I'm a bit doubtful that it's high enough on the omega 3's either... definitely worth considering, study replicating my precise situation or not!
psychohist From: psychohist Date: July 20th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
For what it's worth, my favorite eggs are the Vital Farms ones, which are pastured but not local, and Elizabeth's favorites are the Organic Valley omega 3 ones. If it's just a taste issue, you might try a dozen of each of those to see how you like the taste. If you also prefer local or extra fresh for other reasons, that won't address those reasons.

Edit: note that pastured is different from free range; free range chickens still get chicken feed, where pastured chickens have to fend for themselves.

Edited at 2012-07-20 06:47 pm (UTC)
pekmez From: pekmez Date: July 20th, 2012 07:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
And, here's more than you wanted to know about my favorite eggs! :)

I prefer extra fresh, local farm eggs for taste reasons. I can tell, both from the chicken's diet and the freshness (and the season for that matter.) What I wish I could buy year round is non-winter pastured eggs from the rural countryside where bert's mom grew up in Croatia, but alas, I can't. :) Those taste AMAZING and are practically neon orange inside, too.

My favorite obtainable local farm eggs are 1) Codman Farms in Lincoln and 2) Chestnut Farm in Hardwick. Codman is hit or miss - sometimes they have their own, sometimes they stock their fridge with Chip-in farms when they run out; but our meat CSA is from Chestnut so I can get them once or twice a month and stock up, and thus any day I buy them I can eat them while super-fresh - they taste better to me even when not. Pete and Jen's (Concord, Ma, I think?) might also be in that class except that I am too cheap to pay $7 for a dozen eggs. :)

Supermarket eggs are generally not as fresh as that even at their best - though they are dated, so I can buy them fairly fresh if I buy them somewhere with a lot more turnaround.

In the next tier down "supermarket egg" class I include Chip-in and Coll's farm, which are both fed chicken feed but they promise it's vegetarian.
I have an irrational fear - if I trust the farm highly I'd much *rather* my chickens eat bugs, worms, and food scraps -- but if I don't, I want them to promise me they aren't feeding the chickens meat processing scraps from a factory. =) (Alas, even their promise is meaningless, as "vegetarian fed" on the label doesn't actually mean anything - but at least they are trying.) But these two farms, I do know the locations of and feel like supporting, and in addition I can support local small businesses again - I buy them at Kickass cupcakes and Dave's Fresh pasta. This tier is pretty much all about politics/supporting mom and pop indie businesses though. I can generally be more sure they are fresh, at least, but these are pretty standard chicken-feed eggs.

For my third tier, the occasional "grab eggs at the supermarket", I tend to get either Eggland's Best or Organic Valley - neither of which are local or especially tasty but at least claim not to feed the chickens any meatpacking plant waste, and have extra omega-3s in the feed. (I believe that even the large branded eggs, like dairy, are "semi-local" -- even if sold to a big egg packager, they tend to actually come from chickens vaguely around here.)
psychohist From: psychohist Date: July 20th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, someone to talk eggs with.

I probably have somewhat different figures of merit than you do. I don't care that much about supporting local farms because I'm unconvinced that New England is the best place to do farming - though as you say, some of the name brand eggs are likely to be sourced somewhat locally. I care most about nutrient content, I care about taste, and I care some about the treatment of the chickens.

I care about freshness for the eggs I fry because it affects whether the yolks break; on the other hand, I want less fresh eggs for my boiled eggs because their shells are then easier to remove. Of course, it's easy to make less fresh eggs from fresh eggs, but not vice versa. I don't find that freshness affects taste much.

With respect to nutrient content, the main thing about eggs, to me, is the omega 3:6 ratio; the ideal ratio for humans is between 1:1 and 1:2, while eggs from chickens fed regular vegetarian chicken feed are in the range of 1:20, which is about as bad as it gets. This is especially relevant because getting the right omega 3:6 ratio is as much about limiting omega 6s as it is about getting more omega 3s. For this reason I won't eat eggs from vegetarian chickens unless they are substantially omega 3 enhanced.

My favorite eggs are the ones from my aunt's chickens that are pastured in my father's back yard in Florida. They are terrific - and as you say, have bright orange yolks. I'm pretty sure they're basically carnivorous given the insect density down there. I suspect their omega 3:6 ratio is fine for that reason.

The Vital Farms eggs also taste very good, but I think they're often as much as a month old when they reach the grocery store. Their yolks are usually varying shades of orange. I only buy these for frying, as they're $6/doz, and the taste of boiled eggs doesn't matter as much to me.

There is a big difference between the regular Organic Valley eggs and the Organic Valley omega 3 eggs. The regular Organic Valley eggs are raised on organic, but otherwise standard, vegetarian chicken feed, so they are likely to have the same terrible omega 3:6 ratio as most eggs. Their omega 3 eggs, while still vegetarian, eat a lot of flax, and have an omega 3:6 ratio of 1:3, which is quite good - better than grain fed meat - and they have fairly uniform orange yolks. These are the ones that Elizabeth scrambles for the kids, and that I boil for everyone. Organic Valley eggs seem to get to the grocery store within a couple of weeks of being laid - not as good as the same day, but better than most eggs. The ones I boil, I have to let sit in the refrigerator for an extra week or two first.

If you want to improve your essential fatty acid balance - your omega 3:6 ratio - I'd recommend you cut out the middle tier of vegetarian fed chickens, and for supermarket eggs make sure you get eggs with at least 200 mg of omega 3s per egg. That likely means either Pete & Gerry's or the omega 3 version of Organic Valley. These will all be in the range of $5/doz, though. Both will be sourced in New England, though likely not in Massachusetts.

Edited at 2012-07-20 09:10 pm (UTC)
From: aaminoff Date: July 23rd, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC) (Link)


I broadly agree with most of the discussion so far. Jenise and I go for local because we sometimes have the time and interest to visit the farms and personally observe the animals and how they are cared for, and some expertise distinguishing the good from the bad.

I would avoid Chip-in Farm, we visited and were not impressed. Their chickens were not allowed outside at all, nominally for fear of bird flu, but in practice because they are a marginal enterprise trying to compete on price with big agribusiness rather than focusing on the high-value premium market. Their mistake.

Pete & Jen's Backyard Birds in Concord is excellent, though good luck actually getting any eggs when not in season (why don't they raise the price in winter and drop it in spring? Oh well). They have a mobile coop which they move around so they can do the grass cycle.

Chestnut Farms in Hardwick does not have a mobile coop (or didn't a couple years ago when we visited) but their birds roam freely over large areas, foraging for themselves.

We did a direct head to head taste / color test and wrote it up on the knowyourfoodboston blog a few years ago.

Now that we are in Beverly we get eggs from Farmers to You, and have not had time to really investigate. They are pretty good. Next year we might have our own chickens, though I am sceptical.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: July 20th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
My first reply got eaten by a server error, but it's probably for the best as Warren has more hard info than I do.

I don't know of any studies that specifically address omega-3s and post-partum depression, that's just a pet hypothesis of mine. It would be nice if someone in the field thought to do a study, but in the meantime I think that eating lots of Omega-3s helps, but it's clearly not the one true answer or anything like that. There is a lot of other stuff going on after a baby is born (hormonal shifts, sleep deprivation, increased workload, changing family dynamic, etc.), and eating right won't prevent depression in everyone. I just think a lot of women shoot themselves in the foot on the nutrition front, and it's one of the easier things to fix.
pekmez From: pekmez Date: July 20th, 2012 05:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect mine might be more likely to be some other cause, though I may be slacking on omega-3's -- I'm picky about eggs, so I don't wind up with the high-omega 3 ones that much because 80-90% of the time I choose extremely fresh small-farmed eggs instead; we tend to eat fish more like 3x a month rather than twice a week; etc.

It is probably worth looking at omega-3 supplements even if it is just a pet theory of yours - it certainly won't hurt to dump flaxseed in my bread more often. :) (I'm also holding out hope that something as simple and measurable as Luka stealing all of my iron is what's made me remain tired once the sleep deprivation largely leveled out...)

I took a while to notice mine because of so many of the things that happen after a baby is born, even if said baby is now nearly 2! ;-)
tallou From: tallou Date: July 21st, 2012 03:03 am (UTC) (Link)
I've heard the omega-3 theory in various places, and have been upping my omega-3s and cutting out grains. I think my mood is better, but I would not call it fixed. Just as a data point.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: July 20th, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here's a press release on a trial that specifically addresses postpartum depression:


Personally I think essential fatty acid balance in the diet probably is the one true answer to postpartum depression, since postpartum depression otherwise makes little sense from an evolutionary standpoint. I suspect it also likely goes a long way for most types of depression, though there may be other factors there.
pekmez From: pekmez Date: July 20th, 2012 10:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yay, eggs! We eat a lot of soft-boiled eggs, where I care about the freshness and can taste the difference. (Also in scrambled and fried.)

For egg farming, I think local makes sense even in the big agrobusiness - chickens do fine in most of America year-round, I think. But if I avoid the big agrobusiness and big box supermarets, local makes it possible to actually eat eggs that are practically still warm from the nest box (the dozen I bought at Codman farm once! (For produce, I also like local when it means I get tomatoes and corn harvested that day!)

Today at the supermarket (actually, while running errands at Target, of all things - so much for supporting business that give me a warm fuzzy feeling)! I got "Born Free" brand vegetarian fed with "more than 100g of Omega 3's." Presumably also the flax-in-the-chicken-feed kind. They're mostly destined for baking and for scrambled eggs with flavorful stuff added, and I forgot to try to get some during this month's meat CSA delivery.

I definitely need to try Vital Farms, it sounds like - if they taste that good when they are a month old. Where do you find them?

Organic Valley, Pete & Gerrys, and Born Free all taste about the same to me, and I usually buy the cheap Born Free ones to offset the rest of my overpriced egg habit. I could probably cut out the Kickass Cupcakes/Dave's Fresh Pasta tier in favor of Omega-3 supplement ones, but you will have pry those occasional same-day harvested Codman Farm eggs out of my cold dead fingers. ;-)

psychohist From: psychohist Date: July 21st, 2012 02:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I get the Vital Farms eggs at Whole Foods. Note that different people care about different aspects of egg taste, though.
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