Could chocolate this Christmas be the key to a well-supported mind nutritionally? Find out in this week’s Nutrition News that looks at three recently published studies in the world of nutrition to offer clarity to your dietary choices.

Chocolate could be the key to cognitive health as we age

A recent two-year clinical trial observed the potential of flavanol-rich diets or supplements to bolster cognitive health in older adults with lower diet quality. The study reported that older adults taking a daily cocoa extract supplement experienced slight improvements in cognitive function. However, it is important to note that these benefits were solely evident in individuals with initially lower diet quality, not in those with healthier dietary patterns.

This study, reported in the article “Cocoa Extract May Help Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline in Older Adults” by Healthline, a part of the broader Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), involved 573 older participants randomly assigned either cocoa extract or a placebo for two years. While the overall group showed no significant cognitive changes with cocoa extract, those with lower diet quality experienced comparatively enhanced cognition and executive function—a set of crucial cognitive skills.

These findings align with a prior study within COSMOS, indicating flavanols' memory improvement in older adults with lower diet quality. Yet, they diverge from another COSMOS research that found multivitamin/mineral benefits for overall cognition but no impact from cocoa extract, without specifically considering lower diet quality.

Despite the observed potential, the study’s authors cautioned against recommending daily cocoa extract supplementation for cognitive preservation without further research. They stressed the importance of considering diet and nutrition in future trials exploring cocoa extract's cognitive impact, urging diverse participant representation and a focus on those with lower diet quality.

Dr. Thomas Holland, a scientist from RUSH University, found the study intriguing for its focus on specific flavanols compared to broader flavonoid assessments. His previous research in Neurology highlighted reduced Alzheimer's risk among individuals consuming flavanol-rich foods such as kale, spinach, tomatoes, olive oil, beans, and tea. This underscores the need for more comprehensive investigations into dietary components and cognitive health before advocating widespread cocoa extract use for cognitive enhancement.

Study suggests pregnant women aren’t getting the right nutrients

Scientists are sounding an alarm regarding pregnant women's nutrition, flagging a concerning shortage of essential nutrients vital for both maternal health and the development of unborn babies. Research spanning high-income countries revealed that 90% of expectant mothers lacked crucial vitamins pivotal for healthy pregnancies and foetal wellbeing.

Conducted across countries including the UK, New Zealand, and Singapore, the University of Southampton-led study involved over 1,700 women. Shockingly, these women were significantly deficient in vital nutrients commonly found in meat and dairy products—vitamins B12, vitamin B6, vitamin D, folic acid, and riboflavin, essential for foetal growth in the womb.

Professor Keith Godfrey, the study's lead author, expressed deep concern about the prevalence of vitamin deficiencies among women trying to conceive in developed nations. He emphasised that the global shift toward plant-based diets, driven by efforts to achieve carbon neutrality, could exacerbate this issue, potentially impacting unborn children's long-term health.

Reported in the Science Daily article “Pregnant women are missing vital nutrients needed for them and their babies”, the study tracked women from conception through subsequent pregnancies. Results starkly revealed that nearly all women had insufficient levels of key vitamins around conception, further worsening during late pregnancy.

Co-author Professor Wayne Cutfield advocated for over-the-counter multivitamin and conception support supplements for expecting mothers to counter nutrient deficiencies, stressing that maternal wellbeing profoundly impacts infant health, development, and learning abilities.

This study marked a pivotal moment by showcasing that readily available supplements could address vitamin insufficiencies during preconception, pregnancy, and lactation periods—an unprecedented finding in PLOS Medicine.

Yoghurt may reduce your risk of depression

Recent research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine suggests that a bacterium commonly found in fermented foods and yoghurt, Lactobacillus, could potentially play a role in preventing depression and anxiety by aiding the body in stress management.

The study focused on how Lactobacillus affects stress and mental health conditions. Results showed that subjects lacking this bacterium exhibited increased stress responses and lower levels of a stress-regulating immune factor, potentially linking these deficiencies to depression and anxiety-related behaviours.

Scientists highlighted the gut microbiome's involvement in mood disorders and the immune system‘s role in this connection. This discovery opens new avenues for mental support. For instance, probiotic supplements containing Lactobacillus might offer a nutritional support for individuals at risk of depression in the future.

Nutritionists and neuroscientists emphasise the critical connection between gut health and mental wellbeing. Lactobacillus, through its influence on the gut-brain axis, seems to impact neurotransmitter production, including serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), crucial for mood regulation. Additionally, it appears to reduce gut inflammation, indirectly contributing to improved mental health.

However, it's crucial to understand that dietary changes or supplements containing Lactobacillus aren't standalone solutions for mental health concerns. Instead, they can complement existing treatments. Emphasising a holistic approach, experts stress the interconnectedness of physical and mental health. Factors such as diet, physical activity, sleep support, stress management, and lifestyle choices collectively influence mental wellbeing.

Recognising the multifaceted nature of mental health, a comprehensive approach involving various aspects of life is essential for its management and improvement.

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Alison Astill-Smith author Alison is Director and Founder of Metabolics who writes about Metabolics updates, events and natural healthcare. Her experience and passion for natural supplements and healthcare comes from her years of experience as a practising osteopath, having founded Metabolics in her search for high quality, natural products in her own work. Alison has been a qualified and practising Osteopath since 1981 and regularly gives seminars on a range of healthcare subjects to the wider practitioner community helping share her knowledge and experience.