PREGNANT women are not eating enough iodine-rich food such as fish, milk and even seaweed, which could hinder the development of their child’s brain, experts have warned.
The nutrient is required for the production of thyroid hormones, crucial for the healthy brain development of babies, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy.
Severe lack of iodine is one of the leading causes of brain damage in the developing world but even mild-to-moderate iodine deficiency during pregnancy may be associated with poorer cognitive function in the child.
Scottish scientists questioned 1,026 women across the UK who were either pregnant or mothers of children under 36 months, on their nutritional intake.
The researchers found nearly three-quarters of women were consuming less than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended intake of 250 micrograms (ug) daily, with the average intake at 190 ug per day.
Around 84 per cent were unaware that iodine is important for the healthy development of their unborn baby.
Dr Emilie Combet, who led the research at Glasgow University, said: “Women aren’t receiving the message about the importance of iodine in pregnancy, meaning they cannot make informed choices to ensure they get the amount they require.
“Iodine is crucial during pregnancy and the first months of life, to ensure adequate brain development, but achieving over 200ug a day of iodine through diet requires regular consumption of iodine-rich foods such as milk and sea fish.
“Not everyone will have the knowledge, means or opportunity to achieve this.”
The study, which is published today in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that while 96 per cent were aware of general nutritional recommendations for pregnant women, only 12 per cent were aware of iodine- specific advice.
Iodine deficiency affects 1.9 billion people globally and is the most preventable cause of intellectual disability.
Unborn children and young babies are reliant on their mother for iodine supply, but there is currently no recommendation for routine iodine supplements in the UK unlike folic acid and vitamin D.
The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) indicates how much should be consumed. For adults in Britain, it is 140ug per day and there is no proposed increase in this advisory level for pregnant and lactating women. There is also no routine testing in pregnancy to reflect iodine levels, as there is with iron.
Dr Combet said the UK needs to work towards a solution to help “spread the word”, as knowledge of iodine-rich foods is low, with 56 per cent unable to identify any iodine-rich foods and the majority wrongfully believing dark green vegetables and table salt have high levels.
She said: “The most important issue to come from this study, however, was the lack of awareness of the important role iodine plays in foetal development and how to consume adequate levels of this essential mineral.
“This is something that needs to be addressed.”
The focus on iodine’s “huge health benefits” was welcomed by nutritionist Emma Conroy, who urged expectant mothers to eat plenty of seaweed which is rich in iodine.
Ms Conroy, who runs Edinburgh Nutrition, said: “There are lots of nutrients that pregnant women are not getting enough of and I think it is good to give something like iodine more attention. Iodine has huge health benefits.
“By far and away the best thing to eat is seaweed, which is really rich in iodine. I think sometimes the idea of sushi puts people off but you can buy the seaweed sheets in supermarkets yourself and make wraps which are really good.”
She urged expectant mothers to eat more white fish and oily fish to ensure their iodine levels were high, as well as making sure they get plenty of other nutrients like vitamins D and A.
Ms Conroy added: “I would encourage women to eat a nutrient-dense diet, by looking for foods rich in these important things.”