Does Diet Influence Brain Function?
The first few years of a child's life are crucial for their brain and cognitive development. Research has shown that along with physical activity and time spent outdoors, certain foods and nutrients help promote healthy brain development and boost brain functions such as memory and retention. The brain is a hungry organ. For an organ that comprises just two percent of the body weight, the brain consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy intake. It also needs a chunk of unsaturated fats, vitamin B complex and vitamin C and a fair amount of protein to sustain its functions.
Good nutrition, therefore, is essential to optimize early brain development and function. Studies have reported that specific nutrients and foods improve brain development and support cognitive function in children.
What Is the Best Brain Food for Kids?
The brain of a child needs a complex mixture of nutrients for its growth, functioning, development and performance. According to research, the following nutrients are essential for brain development in children.
- Protein: Essential for brain cell development
- Carbohydrates: Release energy and maintain optimal brain functioning
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs): Essential for the development of the brain tissue
- Choline: Precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine
- Vitamins and minerals: Lack of these can affect brain functions, memory and mood
The best brain foods are those that provide one or more of the above nutrients needed by the brain. The following foods contain nutrients that are important for a healthy brain.
- Eggs: Eggs are a storehouse of nutrients. They are a good source of high-quality protein. Egg yolks are an important source of choline, which is a key component of the cell membranes. Choline is the precursor of acetylcholine, which is important for brain and memory function. Eggs contain iron; iodine; omega-3 fatty acids; zinc; lutein and vitamins A, D and B12, all of which enhance brain cell connections in children.
- Fish: Fish is another fantastic brain food for children. Fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which aid healthy brain growth and function. About 60 percent of the brain is made up of fat and the body uses omega-3 fatty acids as building blocks of the brain tissue. Regular consumption of fish increases a child’s brain power, sharpens memory and improves mental skills. Some of the fish varieties that are rich in omega-3 include salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Additionally, fish is an excellent source of lean protein, iron, iodine, zinc and vitamins D and B12 that are particularly important for brain function.
- Beans and lentils: They are good sources of both protein and iron and contain good amounts of zinc and vitamin B6. They also contain complex carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins and minerals that keep a child's energy and intellectual levels high. Kidney beans contain more omega-3 fatty acids, specifically α-linolenic acid (ALA), than other beans, which are important for brain growth and function.
- Whole grains including oats: Whole grains and oats are rich in carbohydrates and fiber. They improve concentration by providing the brain with a constant supply of energy for brain function. Whole grains and oats are good sources of nutrients such as folate, iron, zinc, potassium, protein, vitamin E and B complex vitamins that are essential to help a child’s brain work at an optimal, full capacity. The combination of nutrients in whole-grain foods improves auditory attention and memory cognition.
- Vegetables: Vegetables that are brightly colored such as tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, broccoli and cabbage are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help keep brain cells healthy and fight free radical damage. This keeps the brain cells in good health. Green leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, spinach and collard greens are great sources of iron and folate among other nutrients and are excellent brain foods. Folates are natural tonics for your kid’s brain. Kale is laden with sulforaphane and diindolylmethane that aid the growth of new brain cells. Avocado is a rich source of unsaturated fats that promote blood flow to the brain. It also contains oleic acid that protects myelin. Broccoli contains DHA that helps neurons connect and keeps the child attentive in school.
- Dairy products: Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt provide protein, zinc, choline, iodine, vitamin B12 and DHA, all of which are essential for the growth and functioning of the brain tissue and neurotransmitters.
- Fruits: Fruits such as apples, plums and white grapes contain quercetin, an antioxidant that fights against the decline of cognitive skills (memory). Fruits, especially berries, contain anthocyanins and other flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods can improve mental function, prevent damage caused by free radicals and keep the brain cells strong. Fruits that are high in vitamin C, such as oranges, kiwi fruit, guava, strawberries and papaya, can keep the child’s brain healthy and alert and improve memory. They also prevent oxidative stress in the brain.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are rich in protein, essential fatty acids, vitamin E, B-complex vitamins, iron and zinc that are important for brain function and cognitive performance. Antioxidants in nuts and seeds can help maintain a healthy brain. Walnuts and flaxseeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that help promote good brain health. Flaxseeds are full of ALA, which is a healthy fat that helps the cerebral cortex function more effectively. Nuts such as walnuts, almonds and peanuts are good brain foods.
- Lean meat: Lean meat such as chicken and turkey, as well as seafood such as tuna and shellfish, are rich sources of minerals such as zinc and iron. Iron in meat helps supply oxygen to the brain, supporting cognitive development and attention. Zinc helps regulate communications between the nerve cells in the brain.
Are Brain Tonics Recommended for Kids?
Most kids can obtain their daily nutrients from a healthy and balanced meal consisting of the aforementioned ingredients. These ingredients can be spread over weekly meals and given to the child in bits and pieces. Most kids do not need tonics. Your pediatrician may recommend a supplement or tonic if your child has certain health conditions or digestive disorders or is on a vegan diet.
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WebMD: "Top 10 Brain Foods for Children." https://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/brain-foods-for-children