As a pediatric dietitian and mom of four, I appreciate the power of nutrition for the brain. From the moment of conception, what an expectant mom eats influences the development of her baby’s spinal cord and brain. Early nutrition lays the foundation of brain synapses and neural connections, which work together to relay messages, thoughts and ideas across the brain. As children grow older, they communicate and interact with others, develop new knowledge and hone their executive skills. Each depends on a healthy brain.

We are also learning how important nutrition is to brain development and function. When kids don’t eat the foods and nutrients they need for their growing brains, a nutritional gap may form and this can impact how they grow and function, from memory to problem solving, learning and more. There’s no doubt nutrition and nutrients play an important role in brain health for every child. Here’s what you need to know about closing that potential brain nutrition gap.

What’s happening in the brain during childhood?

The brain is an amazing organ. Made up of 60% fat and the ‘original’ information superhighway, the brain and its health and functioning is important, no matter the age. Naturally, we hear about the importance of the First 1,000 Days, but you may be surprised to learn the brain is evolving across childhood after the toddler years, too. 

  • During infancy, the brain is developing rapidly. Not only does it double in size in the first year of life, the neuron connections are being built, which impacts future learning, socializing and emotional regulation. 
  • Toddlerhood showcases rapid learning and language development, and the emergence of social-emotional skills. 
  • By age 4, executive functioning, such as an ability to delay gratification and show self-control emerges. 
  • The school-age years are known for acquisition of new knowledge, like learning to read and write, and the executive and planning skills are further honed. Critical thinking, problem solving and controlling impulses gets further developed in adolescence. As you can imagine, the brain relies on a range of nutrients to evolve in this manner. 

Brain food: Which nutrients are important for the brain?

Nearly all nutrients support brain health. It’s hard to focus on one nutrient for risk of losing sight of the full range of nutrients, however, research has teased out several nutrients that are crucial to normal development and functioning of the brain. Protein, iron, zinc, folate, choline, omega-3 DHA and EPA, iodine, vitamins A, D, and some of the B vitamins play an important role in neurodevelopment. 

Related: 10 positive phrases to help your kids eat less sugar

Iron is especially important in the early years of life 

It not only helps build the brain structure, it is involved in transmission and myelination of the nerve cells. Yet, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide. A deficiency of iron both in the prenatal and early years of life has been associated with a negative impact on intellectual, psychological and behavioral development. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who experience restless leg syndrome (RLS) may have a low iron diet. And even teen iron deficiency can impair cognitive performance. Thankfully, iron deficiency may be resolved with professional guidance and iron supplementation.

Omega-3 fatty acids are another group of nutrients involved in brain health 

According to a 2020 review study in Nutrients, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, is a building block for vision, literacy (learning to read) and normal brain development. Another omega-3 fat, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), is neuroprotective and helps regulate mood and mental health. Choline, found in eggs, for example, helps the brain process and store memories, which is critical to learning new material. Although all nutrients are important for brain development and health, some are essential, like DHA, EPA and choline. We cannot make these within our bodies – we have to get them from food or other sources.

The brain nutrition gap is most likely to start in toddlerhood

In infancy, both breastfed and formula fed babies are likely to get all the nutrients they need for optimal brain development. Breastfeeding mothers should make sure they’re getting plenty of choline, DHA and other essential nutrients in their diet to support their infant’s brain growth. Infant formula is designed to closely mimic breast milk and offers the necessary nutrition for normal brain development, too. 

As kids become toddlers and have a mind of their own, their diet changes quite a bit. Toddlers may become selective about food, shying away from protein foods or vegetables, for instance. Or, they may not be exposed to nutrient-rich foods like fish and seafood. Food preferences develop during this timeframe and reflect the foods young children eat and the frequency with which they consume them. 

When toddlers don’t eat the foods and nutrients they need for brain health, a nutritional gap may form. 

Jump forward to grade school and eating patterns reflect the foods kids like to eat, not necessarily what’s good for them. Although some kids will be happy to eat a variety of foods, including fish, nuts, veggies and more, many will have limited diets that may fall short on important nutrients for brain health.  

And that brain nutrition gap that started in toddlerhood? It may widen.

One only needs to look at surveys and studies to see what kids are eating—and what they aren’t. Surveys like the 2015-2018 What We Eat in America give us a good idea of where kids are hitting the nutritional mark, and where they’re falling short. 

Survey results show that most kids don’t get enough omega-3 fats. Other nutrients, such as choline, vitamin D, and iron, are also at risk for deficiency, depending on a child’s eating patterns and age. 

Related: What are the best activities to boost baby’s brain development?

Closing the nutrition gap with food

While it’s empowering to know what our kids need to optimize their intellectual potential, getting them to eat what they should eat is a whole different story. 

One thing I’ve learned in over 30 years as a pediatric dietitian is you can’t make kids eat. Nagging, bribing or punishing them is counterproductive and may interfere with their psychological wellbeing and health in the long run. 

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to offer nutritious foods. It also doesn’t mean you should give up on making food more tasty by adding a pinch of seasoning, butter or olive oil. Or enticing your child by making food more appealing, such as cutting food into cute shapes, skewering cheese with veggies or fruit, or letting your child create his own plate from a set menu of foods you’ve prepared.

Related: The scientific reason why your toddler only loves mac and cheese

And remember, it’s not entirely about the food. There are many ways to create an environment that makes it easier for children to eat nutritious foods. Invite your child into the kitchen. From setting the table and stirring batter to washing salad greens and pouring a beverage, children who are involved in the process are more likely to engage with the outcome. And always aim to keep the table talk pleasant and pressure-free.

But, of course, offering up a variety of foods can help children close the brain nutrition gap and get what they need. Serving up the following foods makes a difference—because every bite can add up. 

Try to add some of these nutrient-rich foods to your everyday meals and snacks:

  • Protein: beef, fish, poultry, eggs, nut butter, dairy foods
  • Omega-3 fats: walnuts, seeds, fatty fish (salmon) and other seafood, olive oil, and plant oils
  • Choline: eggs, meat, cauliflower, broccoli
  • Iron: beef, beans, spinach, fortified ready-to-eat cereal
  • Zinc: beef, poultry, beans, nuts, fortified ready-to-eat cereal
  • Vitamin D: milk fortified with vitamin D, fish, mushrooms
  • Vitamin A: carrots, broccoli, cantaloupe, sweet potato, mango
  • Folate: leafy greens, beets, Brussels sprouts, fortified breads and cereals
  • Iodine: cod, tuna, seaweed, shrimp, milk, yogurt, cheese, breads and cereals

And don’t forget kid-friendly fortified foods! Because they have added nutrients, like cereal which is fortified with iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals, they also can help close the nutrition gap. Kids enjoy eating them, too. Add these to lunch boxes, after-school snacks or any main meal.

  • Brainiac Kids products, including Brain Squeezers, Brain Bars and Brain Butters. All offer an added “brain pack” of omega-3 DHA, EPA, ALA, and choline.
  • Ready-to-eat cereals fortified with iron, vitamin D, folate and B vitamins
  • Eggs fortified with DHA and EPA
  • Milk fortified with vitamin D and DHA
  • Orange juice fortified with vitamin D

Sources

Cusick S, Georgieff, M. The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development: The Golden Opportunity of the “First 1000 Days.” Medical Progress. Published 2016 June 3. 

DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe JH. The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders. Nutrients. 2020;12(8):2333. Published 2020 Aug 4. doi:10.3390/nu12082333
McCann S, Perapoch Amadó M, Moore SE. The role of iron in brain development: a systematic review. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 5;12(7):2001.

Tseng, PT., Cheng, YS., Yen, CF. et al. Peripheral iron levels in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sci Rep 8, 788 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-19096-x

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