The human brain is a complex organ that requires a range of nutrients to function correctly. From a young age, children require a well-balanced and varied diet to support brain development and cognitive function. Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in building and maintaining healthy brain cells, regulating neurotransmitter production, and promoting healthy brain function.
Why Nutrition is Important
Here are some of the reasons why nutrition is essential for children’s brain health:
During the first few years of life, a child’s brain undergoes significant growth and development. Proper nutrition during this period is crucial to support the development of healthy brain cells, neural pathways, and synapses. Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and iodine are particularly important during this stage, as they play a crucial role in brain development.
Proper nutrition is also essential for optimal cognitive function, or how our kids are able to learn, think, reason, make decisions, problem solve, pay attention and remember things. The brain requires a steady supply of glucose to function correctly, and a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates can help maintain stable blood sugar levels. Additionally, nutrients such as vitamin E, B vitamins, and choline are essential for memory, attention, and other cognitive functions.
Nutrition can also play a significant role in mental health. Studies have shown that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety in children. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats has been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues.
Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Behavior and Mood
Neurodevelopmental disorders are disabilities associated with functioning of the neurological system and brain. Neurodevelopmental disorders include ADHD, autism, learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities. We now know food may play a role in the development of these disorders, as well as more generally affect mood and behavior. A diet that is high in sugar and processed foods has been linked to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and aggression in children. In contrast, a diet rich in whole foods, healthy fats, and lean proteins can promote a stable mood and improve behavior.
Nutrients for Brain Health
I mentioned some nutrients and general groups of foods that are needed for brain health, so let’s talk more about specific nutrients and foods that contain those nutrients:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega- fatty acids are essential for brain health and development. They impact cognitive function, mental health, mood and behavior, as well as prevention of neurocognitive disorders.
Foods that contain omega- fatty acids include fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, as well as walnut oil and flaxseed oil.
Iron is needed for blood volume expansion and tissue growth. It is a critical part of the blood cell’s ability to transport oxygen around the body, delivering oxygen to growing tissues, including the brain. It also plays a role in the inflammatory process and the development of neurotransmitters, like dopamine (what helps you feel happy). There is evidence that iron deficiency anemia in infancy, not only impacts growth, but also has been shown to be associated with alterations in brain connectivity.
Iron is found in animal products, such as red meats, chicken, fish, eggs, liver, and oysters. It is also found in non-animal products like spinach, oats, beans, soy beans, molasses and dried fruits, like raisins.
Zinc helps cells grow and multiply, making it essential during times of rapid growth. ZInc is also essential for the developing microbiome (your kids gut) and for inflammation. And we know now there is a major connection between the health of our gut and our mental health.
Zinc is also found in high amounts on animal products, like meats, oysters, other fish and shellfish, as well as beans, nuts and seeds.
Choline, like iron plays a role in neurotransmitter function, like dopamine and acetylcholine. These specific neurotransmitters affect mood, memory and concentration.
Foods high in choline include meats, eggs, nuts, spinach, fish, soybeans, broccoli, and cauliflower.
B6, B12, and folate all play a role in brain development and blood cell production. These B vitamins in particular are involved in several areas and essential for brain metabolic pathways and nervous system development. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been associated with delayed cognitive development. Low folate levels have been associated with depression and dementia.
These B vitamins are found in chicken, fish, sweet potatoes, beets, beans, asparagus, leafy greens and fortified cereals.
Iodine is involved with production of thyroid hormones which are necessary for the growth and development of the nervous system. We know that deficiencies are linked to intellectual delays and disabilities.
People most commonly get iodine from using iodized salt, but iodine is also found in fish, shellfish, seaweed, and dairy products.
In conclusion, proper nutrition is essential for children’s brain health. A well-balanced and varied diet that includes a range of nutrients is crucial for brain development, cognitive function, mental health, and behavior. As a parent or caregiver, it is your responsibility to ensure that your child receives the right nutrition to support their growth and development. By providing your child with a healthy and balanced diet, you can help them achieve their full potential and set them up for a healthy and happy life.
Resources and More Reading
John CC, Black MM, Nelson CA 3rd. Neurodevelopment: The Impact of Nutrition and Inflammation During Early to Middle Childhood in Low-Resource Settings. Pediatrics. 2017 Apr;139(Suppl 1):S59-S71. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-2828H. PMID: 28562249; PMCID: PMC5694688.
Granero R, Pardo-Garrido A, Carpio-Toro IL, Ramírez-Coronel AA, Martínez-Suárez PC, Reivan-Ortiz GG. The Role of Iron and Zinc in the Treatment of ADHD among Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials. Nutrients. 2021 Nov 13;13(11):4059. doi: 10.3390/nu13114059. PMID: 34836314; PMCID: PMC8618748.
Agostoni C, Nobile M, Ciappolino V, Delvecchio G, Tesei A, Turolo S, Crippa A, Mazzocchi A, Altamura CA, Brambilla P. The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Developmental Psychopathology: A Systematic Review on Early Psychosis, Autism, and ADHD. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Dec 4;18(12):2608. doi: 10.3390/ijms18122608. PMID: 29207548; PMCID: PMC5751211.