The impact of poor nutrition on obesity and associated chronic diseases is well established. However, evidence suggests that the quality of a child’s diet not only has a considerable impact on their weight and long term health – but also their ability cope with the behavioural and academic demands of school or nursery. A well-fed brain is more likely to lead to good behaviour and improved learning outcomes.
Food for the brain
During the first two years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly. Nutrients play an important role in this development process, acting as energy sources, structural components and precursors to neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers). Children who don’t receive adequate nourishment during this critical period are therefore at risk of a range of cognitive problems including slower language, lower IQ and poorer academic performance in later childhood.
So which nutrients are particularly important? And where can they be found?
- Omega 3 fats
60% of brain weight is fat, so it’s no surprise that deficiencies in certain fats can have a huge impact on intelligence and behaviour. Most of the connections in the brain are laid down by the age of two, so around 50% of a child’s total calories should come from fat during this period to ensure optimum brain development.
Almost half the fat in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3. DHA helps support the transportation of signals to and from the brain and forms the basis of memory. Studies suggest that children who eat foods rich in DHA therefore display improved recollection skills.
Found in: DHA is not produced by the body in significant amounts, which means it must be obtained through diet or supplementation. The most effective omega 3 fats occur naturally in oily fish such as salmon trout, mackerel, herring and sardines. For those who don’t like fish, flaxseeds and walnuts are also good sources.
Zinc is important for the hippocampus – a region of the brain linked with learning and memory. Low zinc levels have been linked with fussy eaters and the development of ADHD. In turn, improving zinc levels in children with ADHD has been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation.
Found in: Meats such as lean beef and poultry, dairy products (including yogurt and cheese), nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.
Iron deficiency in 1-2-year-olds has been linked to poor concentration and long-term learning and behaviour problems. Research suggests that around 85% of children with ADHD have low iron levels (compared with just 18% of children without the condition).
Found in: Lean meat, fish and protein-rich meat alternatives (such as eggs, beans, pulses and tofu). It’s also important to provide vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables) to help aid iron absorption.
Magnesium is used to produce the neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and has a calming effect on the brain. Deficiencies amongst children are common.
Found in: Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocado, yogurt, bananas and dried fruit.
Choline is a nutrient involved in the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important in the creation of memory stem cells, and therefore helps to boost memory.
Found in: Beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, yogurt, tofu, buckwheat and lean beef. Egg yolks are also a great source of choline, but should not be given to children until 8-9 months.
As well as making an effort to incorporate key nutrients, there are some additional nutritional and lifestyle strategies that can help improve behaviour and support the growing brain:
- Blood sugar balance
It is important to keep children’s blood sugar levels stable. Too much refined sugar and children can become hyperactive and find it hard to concentrate. In addition, the brains of young children need a regular supply of energy so that they can think effectively. Lengthy gaps between meals can cause blood sugar levels to dip, and may leave children feeling tired, irritable and easily distracted.
Where possible, opt for slow release carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and oats) paired with a source of protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses) to help slow down the absorption of sugars from food. Eating little and often (i.e. main meals interspersed with healthy snacks) also helps keep children’s energy and concentration steady.
- Reduction in junk food
Research suggests that high junk food diets in children can lead to increased hyperactivity levels. In a society dominated by convenience foods, encouraging a shift towards natural, unprocessed whole foods may seem challenging – but will often lead to improved learning outcomes.
A number of synthetic food additives designed to increase shelf life and enhance colour have been linked to hyperactivity in children and should be avoided where possible. These include tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), carmosine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211).
Dehydration adversely affects concentration and mental performance, so it’s important to ensure that children drink plenty throughout the day and that fresh drinking water is always available.
As well as a healthy diet, exercise helps to keep brains sharp. Research suggests that regular physical activity improves cognitive function and helps children to process information more effectively.
Providing a nutrient-dense diet doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. Children need nearly 40 different nutrients and the more varied their diet, the more likely it is that they will get enough of everything they need. Providing small yet frequent meals that includes a wide variety of fresh ingredients (including wholegrains, a good mix of lean meat, fish and vegetarian proteins, plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables and lots of water) is the most effective ways of ensuring that children’s brains are well nourished.