Fatty acid composition in the mature milk of Bolivian forager-horticulturalists: controlled comparisons with a US sample

Breastfeeding is known to provide many benefits to infants. Breast milk is a nutritional powerhouse with an array of omega-3 fats needed for brain building and development, immune boosting molecules, and everything for a healthy happy baby. However, because breast milk is composed by the nutrients that the mother’s eats, its quality is determined by maternal diet.

This recent study compared one of the most important fatty acids for infant brain development, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, and found that mothers living Amazonia Bolivia, who eat wild game and freshwater fish and almost no processed foods, provided their infants with milk that is significantly higher in those important omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA compared to mothers on a processed foods diet in the United States.

This study has serious implications for infant formulas and the researchers suggest that formulas based on breast milk analysis from mothers eating a modern diet are possibly lower in omega-3s that ideal.

Authors MA Martin, WD Lassek, SJ Gaulin, RW Evans, JG Woo, SR Geraghty, BS Davidson, AL Morrow, HS Kaplan, MD Gurven
Institution Integrative Anthropological Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara
Publication Name Maternal & Child Nutrition
Publication Date July 2012

Breast milk fatty acid (FA) composition varies greatly among individual women, including in percentages of the long-chain polyunsaturated FAs (LCPUFA) 20:4n-6 (arachidonic acid, AA) and 22:6n-3 (docosahexaenoic acid, DHA), which are important for infant neurological development. It has been suggested that owing to wide variation in milk LCPUFA and low DHA in Western diets, standards of milk FA composition should be derived from populations consuming traditional diets. We collected breast milk samples from Tsimane women at varying lactational stages (6-82 weeks). The Tsimane are an indigenous, natural fertility, subsistence-level population living in Amazonia Bolivia. Tsimane samples were matched by lactational stage to samples from a US milk bank, and analysed concurrently for FA composition by gas-liquid chromatography. We compared milk FA composition between Tsimane (n = 35) and US (n = 35) mothers, focusing on differences in LCPUFA percentages that may be due to population-typical dietary patterns. Per total FAs, the percentages of AA, DHA, total n-3 and total n-6 LCPUFA were significantly higher among Tsimane mothers. Mean percentages of 18:2n-6 (linoleic acid) and trans FAs were significantly higher among US mothers. Tsimane mothers’ higher milk n-3 and n-6 LCPUFA percentages may be due to their regular consumption of wild game and freshwater fish, as well as comparatively lower intakes of processed foods and oils that may interfere with LCPUFA synthesis.

Drew Ramsey, MD

Drew Ramsey, M.D. is a psychiatrist, author, and farmer. He is a clear voice in the mental health conversation and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using nutritional interventions. He is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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