The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


"Influence of aquatic resources and subsistence strategy on human milk fatty acid composition: a cross-cultural analysis”

MELANIE A. MARTIN1, WILLIAM D. LASSEK2, STEVEN J.C. GAULIN1, RHOBERT W. EVANS2, HILLARD S. KAPLAN3, JESSICA G. WOO5, ARDYTHE L. MORROW4 and MICHAEL D. GURVEN1.

1Integrative Anthropological Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara, 2Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsbugh, 3Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 4Perinatal Institute, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 5Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

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The long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) arachidonic (AA, 20:4n-6) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6n-3) are essential to early primate growth and development, particularly of the neural and visual systems, and are the most abundant LCPUFA in maternal milk. In humans, the percentages of AA and DHA in milk—derived primarily from maternal fat stores and secondarily from current dietary intake—are highly variable across populations. Milk DHA percentages in most Westernized populations are generally low (reflecting n-6 rich and n-3 poor diets), leading some researchers to suggest that milk DHA standards should derive from populations consuming traditional diets. We recently found significantly higher percentages of AA and DHA in the milk of women from an Amazonian forager-horticulturalist population (the Tsimane) as compared to a lactational age-matched sample of Midwestern U.S. women.

We further compared the Tsimane and U.S. DHA values to those reported in studies across 50 nations, and found women from populations with regular aquatic (marine, lacustrine, riverine) resource consumption showed the highest percentages of milk DHA, irrespective of subsistence economy (i.e., “traditional”, “industrial”). In addition, mean milk DHA percentages from human non-aquatic consumers are more similar to those of non-human primates than they are to human aquatic consumers. Milk fatty acid composition of women who regularly consume aquatic resources may serve as a better reference standard for comparative studies of maternal and child nutrition, primate milk composition in relation to brain size, and hominin evolution.

Melanie Martin supported by NSF REG 0931795 (2009); Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan supported by NIH/NIA grant R01AG023119-01 (2004–2010) and NSF grants BCS-0136274 (2002-2005) and BCS-0422690 (2004-2009); Ardythe Morrow supported by grant NIH/NICHD HD13021

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