Like many parents, I want to raise smart kids who reach their full potential. But as a pediatric nutritionist and mom, I know that parents face a reality that's hard to deny: While certain foods with nutrients like omega-3 DHA, choline and iron help promote brain development, the truth is young children aren't eager to eat these foods.
Why is food important for brain development?
It is well-known that food, and the nutrients it contains, helps the brain develop, grow and function. During infancy and the first 1,000 days, the brain is rapidly growing, laying the scaffolding and blueprint for information transmission, memory and learning.
We can see babies and young toddlers practically morph before our eyes in everyday, simple things like purposeful movement and language development. As kids get older, their social skills blossom in the pre-school years and they engage in formal learning at school. During the teen years, the pruning phase begins, where under-utilized connections in the brain are naturally cut back, allowing the important and frequently used pathways to be honed and refined. It's no surprise the teen years are full of impulse, experimentation and surprises!
From birth to young adulthood, nutrition is a key component in brain growth, development and health.
What is brain food?
Certain nutrients are especially helpful to the developing brain and its functions during childhood. The foods that serve these nutrients in appreciable levels are what I call "brain foods."
For example, breast milk is a brain food for babies—and so is infant formula, as it is formulated to match breast milk as closely as possible. It is rich in fat and supplies many nutrients, such as protein, iron and DHA, required for brain development.
Fatty fish, like salmon, is another example of brain food, as it is a source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
Other nutrient-dense foods for the brain include:
- Olives and olive oil
- Nuts and nut butter
As children grow, however, their food choices become central to their brain health and cognitive abilities.
Which nutrients benefit kids' brains?
It's important to take a holistic view of nutrition for the brain, as research suggests focusing on one single nutrient to the exclusion of others may undermine its functioning. The fact is, many nutrients benefit the brain and they actually interact with each other to help the brain function optimally.
That said, we do know certain nutrients in particular are star players in the area of brain development and health in children. Understanding them can help you select a healthy diet for your child.
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA, help deliver oxygen to the brain, enhance blood flow, slow aging and may impact brain size. For kids, this may translate to better focus and improved reading skills in the classroom, and for younger children, improved learning ability and impulse control.
Choline helps the memory center in the brain develop, particularly during the first six years of life, which is especially important for learning.
Protein, iron and zinc are needed for brain growth from an early age. Luckily, these nutrients are found together in beef, dark meat poultry, beans and certain grains. A deficiency in iron in infancy, for example, has been associated with a long term cognitive impact on children.
And the list goes on. You can count on folate, iodine and vitamins A, D, E and B complex to be involved in healthy brain development, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, which help your child's visual development and may support cognitive growth.
The brain food gap + what kids really eat
Many of the nutrients important for brain health are found in foods such as fish, avocado, eggs, olives and nuts. Not the starches and sweet treats kids beg to eat.
A child's typical diet may create a nutritional gap for certain nutrients critical for brain health. A "gap" is created when the actual consumption of a nutrient falls short of the recommended intake.
For example, the target intake for DHA in kids between 6 and 10 years old is 200-250 mg per day of EPA and DHA (these are packaged together in food and supplements), yet intake studies suggest kids get less than half of this, averaging about 100 mg DHA per day.
This is due, in part, to children not eating the recommended two servings of fish per week (6-8 ounces per week for children aged 2-6 years; 8-12 ounces per week for children 6 years and older).
Solving the brain food gap
While it's simple to say "eat more fish," or "serve more eggs or nuts," the reality is, this isn't easy to execute. Kids can be fussy about food, refuse to eat fish or have a food allergy, preventing them from eating those foods which can be helpful to their brain development.
Of course, families can offer foods rich in brain nutrients to improve their overall diet. Target the following foods to boost brain health:
- Offer walnuts, seeds, fatty fish, olive and other plant oils to add omega-3 fatty acids to the diet. Remember to crush nuts to avoid a choking hazard.
- Find ways to offer eggs, meat, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, and high fiber grains to target protein, choline, iron and zinc. Scramble eggs with spinach and top with cheese. Or, use a slow cooker to prepare beef or poultry to maximize tenderness; shred meat for easier eating.
- Dairy products are a good source of protein and vitamins A, D and B12. New food products, like Brainiac Kids yogurt and applesauce, offer nutrients including omega-3 DHA, EPA, ALA, and choline to help close the nutritional gap. Use it as a side for breakfast or lunch, or a morning or afternoon snack option.
- Nuts, nut butters, avocado, seeds, vegetable oils and wheat germ offer up vitamin E. Spread a thin layer of nut or seed butter onto bread, bagels or crackers. Add wheat germ to oatmeal or smoothies.
- Fortified foods such as cereals, breads, eggs and milk have enhanced sources of iron, zinc, folate, DHA, EPA and other nutrients. Ready-to-eat cereal is versatile. Serve it for breakfast, as a snack or in a pinch, dinner.
And don't forget positive feeding strategies—they can work magic with young kids, too:
- Create fun names for fish and seafood, such as "pink fish" for salmon or "looney-tuny" for tuna.
- Choose colorful foods such as fruits and vegetables, and cut them into bite-size shapes or "fingers" to entice interest in eating.
- Allow kids to serve themselves and make their plate from the prepared foods for the meal.
- Don't be bland: Add spices, seasonings and other flavors to foods. Believe it or not, young kids do like flavorful food.
- Put dressing and dips on the side; young children love to experiment with dip!
While there isn't a magic food, single nutrient or specific feeding strategy that will guarantee a superior IQ, making an effort to include a variety of nutrient-rich foods in your child's diet will support brain development and support future learning.