7 Brain Nutrients Essential For A Child’s Diet
Nutrition has an enormous impact on our brain’s health and performance, and at no stage of life is this fact as crucial as in childhood.
Even though we are born with all our brain cells, that doesn’t mean our brain is fully formed at birth. From the moment we’re born, our brain begins creating the intricate web of connections that form the neural network. According to Dr. Claire McCarthy, Professor of Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, the first 1,000 days of life––a little less than three years––is critical in brain development.
However, even outside of the first three years, our brain continues to grow and develop even as the rate at which we create these neural pathways slows down. This is typically when children begin attending school in various forms and interacting with different types of environments and people outside of their families. These interactions begin laying the foundation of our neural connections, and the ones we use most begin to become more permanent.
This means that a toddler’s brain is at its greatest plasticity, learning and absorbing faster than any other time in our lives. A proper and sufficient supply of brain-healthy nutrients in this formative period can build a solid foundation for a healthy, sharp, and agile mind. Here are seven of the most important brain nutrients to incorporate into a child’s brain-healthy diet.
Protein is an irreplaceable nutrient for the kid brain, as it is the main component in new cell formation and cell growth. It’s essentially the fuel for our body, and when it comes to the brain, kids need a lot of fuel. In adults, a healthy brain uses 20% of our body’s energy supply but with kids that number spikes to almost 50%. And that’s just the brain. Their bodies are also growing during that time, meaning they need a lot of fuel.
Adding foods like eggs, peanut butter, cheese, soy milk, nuts and seeds, dairy, and whole grains are a great start in creating a protein-rich diet for kids. Meats are an easy source of protein, so chicken, turkey, pork, and beef can be incorporated in their daily diet slowly. Focusing on protein-rich snacks and ensuring there is plenty of protein during every meal not only gives a child the energy they need to grow and develop, but it also helps build brain-healthy eating habits from an early age.
Iron plays an essential role in brain development and function. It helps white matter form, is linked with dopamine production, and helps develop synaptic connections in the hippocampus which plays a pivotal role in memory.
When it comes to kids though, foods high in iron like oysters, dark leafy vegetables, beans, or lentils may be difficult to get them to eat with any regularity. Especially if a toddler is going through a picky-eater stage, as many tend to. The good news is there are plenty of tasty foods that are packed with iron like red meats, eggs, chicken, turkey, dried fruits, blackstrap molasses, and nuts. Fruits and nuts can be easily incorporated in the morning cereal routine or in a smoothie. If there’s some reservation about their ability to digest meat, meat broths can be a great alternative that can elevate simple everyday meals while packing in a healthy punch. Additionally, many pastas, cereals, and breads have iron-rich formulas designed to maximize iron levels, but always check the labels to ensure this is true.
Zinc is prevalent in the human brain and supports numerous important functions. It is crucial for both the formation and the optimal functioning of the human brain. It supports enzyme synthesis, DNA synthesis, protein synthesis, cell division, immune system development, and sensory development. However, it also needs to be continually reinforced from outside as the human body has no dedicated storage system for zinc.
Luckily, zinc is a nutrient that tends to be easy to find in many nutritious foods. Chicken, turkey, red meats, mushrooms, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and legumes are great sources of zinc. But there are also a lot of zinc-rich fruits and vegetables that may be more kid-friendly such as avocados, blackberries, blueberries, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, raspberries, and peaches. Both cheddar and swiss cheese contain plenty of zinc, so does greek yogurt. Even some types of oatmeals and cereals can have high levels of zinc, so it’s easy to find food options for even the pickiest of eaters.
This nutrient plays a crucial role in the formation of the membranes around cells, thereby upholding cell structure and preventing damage. So it is one of the essential nutrients in the early childhood rapid developmental stage. Choline has also been linked to cognitive benefits, especially in regulating memory and attention. In fact, choline is so important it’s being looked at placing choline values on nutritional labels to ensure we are getting enough in our daily diets.
Although choline is synthesized naturally in the human liver, that amount is not sufficient to meet a child’s developmental needs. Adding eggs, lean meat like chicken and turkey, fruits, vegetables like green pea and broccoli, low-fat milk, yogurt, ricotta and cottage cheese, and whole grains to a child’s daily meals and snack options will help ensure they receive the necessary daily intakes to support healthy brain cognition.
Folate is an essential B vitamin that is a necessary component in several neurochemical processes, including the successful synthesis of various enzymes and amino acids. Most notably, folate helps fortify the cerebral cortex. The stronger our cerebral cortex is, the slower it will age, delaying the natural thinning of the cortex as we get older. The earlier we introduce a folate-rich diet, the healthier our cerebral cortex will be.
Dark, leafy vegetables, chicken and beef livers, Brussel sprouts, beans, and broccoli are some examples of foods with high folate content. No need to worry if the resident picky eater refuses to eat them as there are plenty of others that will please the toddler palette better. Sunflower seeds and sunflower butter, peanuts and peanut butter, avocados, and citrus fruits are all high in folate. If searching for a supplement, the synthetic equivalent is folic acid and is added to many breads, pastas, and grains.
Omega-3 fatty acids
This nutrient is more popularly known for its heart health benefits, but Omega-3 fatty acids have several important benefits for brain development. This group of acids is known as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that include ALA, DHA, ARA, and EPA––all essential for brain development. Omega-3 fatty acids are among the primary components that form cell membrane and myelin sheaths, and also play an important role in strengthening the retina.
Foods like fatty fishes such as salmon and tuna are commonly associated with Omega-3 fatty acids, but they can also be found in sunflower oil, flaxseeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Even eggs and red meats contain lower levels of these acids, however, not as much as some of the fishes mentioned here. And while they are widely available as dietary supplements, always consult a doctor before introducing this––or any–– supplement to a child’s diet.
While vitamins, in general, are considered necessary for a child’s healthy development, vitamin B12, in particular, is essential in several brain processes including DNA synthesis, cell formation, and energy synthesis. It also helps in myelin production, plays an important role in creating red blood cells, and supports healthy nerve function.
Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal foods. Red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs are the best sources. However, sources of plant-based milk such as soy and almond can be fortified with vitamin B12 as are certain whole-grain foods such as pastas, breads, and cereals.
It is important to provide children with a balanced diet that contains appropriate amounts of brain-healthy nutrients. Not only will these foods help in early brain development, but getting a child used to eating brain-healthy meals and snacks will set them on the path of healthy eating.
We understand it isn’t always easy to incorporate brain-healthy foods into a child’s diet, however, always consult with a physician or nutritionist before making any significant dietary changes or adding any supplements into a child’s daily routine.