A great deal of the brain’s structure and capacity is shaped early in life before the age of 3 years old. Failure to optimise brain development early in life may have a negative impact on education and adult mental health. Amongst the factors that influence early brain development, three stand out as having particularly profound effects: reduction of toxic stress and inflammation, presence of strong social support and secure attachment, and provision of optimal nutrition. In this article, we’re focussing on nutrition:
The effect of nutrition on brain development and function has been studied for many years, and scientists are still discovering more dietary factors that may enhance, or even impair brain development and function. While there is not a “miracle diet” that can drastically improve a child’s IQ some changes can be made to ensure that your child’s brain is getting the nutrients it needs to develop, and that it isn’t damaged by oxidative stress, or overwhelmed by an unstable blood glucose level. Here are a few guidelines:
- Steady blood glucose
The brain uses glucose as its primary source of energy. Carbohydrate-containing food (starches, sugars, fruit, etc) are all converted into glucose in our bodies.
Too much “fast-releasing” sugar and your child may be hyperactive and find it hard to concentrate. Too little and they may feel tired, irritable and also find it hard to concentrate. Therefore, the RIGHT TYPES of carbohydrates and RIGHT AMOUNT at the RIGHT TIME is important to guarantee a balanced blood glucose.
Children should have 3 meals and 2 snacks per day. Each meal / snack should include a carbohydrate with a healthy fat and / or protein. Combining a carbohydrate with a healthy fat / protein help lower the Glycaemic Index of that meal and consequently insures a steadier release of glucose to the blood stream.
Good choices of low GI meals / snack include:
- Oats with peanut butter and / or milk
- Fresh fruit with plain yoghurt and pumpkin seeds
- Low GI seeded / wholegrain bread or wraps with chicken and salad
- Homemade popcorn with low fat cheese
- Whole wheat pasta with lean mince and bolognaise sauce
- Brown rice with lentils and chicken stew
- Hummus with vegetable crudité’s.
- Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids, in particular DHA and EPA are abundant in the cell membranes of brain cells, preserving cell membrane health and facilitating communication between brain cells. A deficiency in DHA and EPA may lead to huge repercussions on intelligence and behaviour. How much is enough? If your child is having 3 portions a week of oily fish and a daily portion of seeds and / or walnuts, they should be getting a good amount to help their brains develop.
Include Mackerel, Herring, Sardines, Anchovies, Tuna (canned in water, not oil), Salmon, Sesame seeds, Chia seeds, Walnuts, ground flax seeds or flax seed oil)
Sprinkle seeds over cereal, or use it in smoothies or trail mix. If your child is not a fan of fish, he / she can benefit from an Omega-3 supplement.
- Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins play a crucial role in overall brain function, from regulating energy production in brain cells, to facilitating the action of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that transfer information between neurons. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that primarily protects cells from damage associated with oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
Minerals, such as iron and zinc, are required for the anatomy of the brain, as well as the main functions of the brain.
Include fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, and fortified cereals, lean meat, poultry, and fish in your child’s diet daily.
The following factors may impair or even be harmful to kids’ brain development:
Refined carbohydrates (white starches, baked products, sweets and cold drinks, ice cream and puddings, etc) In addition to worsening the body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function.
Other food products and substances that may be harmful, and should rather be reduced includes Food additives (especially dyes and colourings), as well as nitrates and nitrites (commonly found in processed foods), deep fried food and fast foods.
A basic guideline…read labels and rather avoid products with ingredients that you battle to pronounce… And give your child fresh food that is still in its most natural, least processed form.
With thanks to contributor, Melissa Ludick.