Is there really such a thing as brain food?
Does what we feed our kids make them smarter? While there’s no single food or pill that guarantees super intellect, what experts do know is that nutrition plays a significant role in a child’s brain development. And, current research suggests that the right nutrition, particularly in the very early years, and even before a child is born, can impact a child’s cognitive ability.
Dr. Marianna Wetherill, registered dietitian and assistant professor in the College of Public Health at OU-Tulsa, explains that it’s important for parents to know that a child’s cognitive or intellectual potential is not entirely genetic. Smart parents don’t necessarily produce smart children. Environmental factors such as a rich sensory and physical environment, a nurturing social environment and eating healthy foods all play a role in children’s brain development. A child’s potential is a complex interplay between genes (DNA) and the environment. While you can’t change your children’s genes, you can control what they eat.
“Nutrition is considered an environmental exposure because it’s something that’s outside of us that we take into our bodies. These external nutrients can influence the expression of our DNA while also directly becoming parts of our own cells, tissues and organs,” Wetherill says.
Because it’s easier to study, most research on nutrition and brain development has focused on pregnant women, and on infants up to age one who are breastfeeding or formula feeding. Once children enter elementary school after age 5, eating patterns level off, again making nutrition research easier.
“What we do know,” Wetherill says, “is that about the second or third trimester [of pregnancy] there is rapid brain growth and development in the fetus, and for the first one to two years in life, the brain is still growing at a quick speed. By about the age of 4, that brain is almost the same size as an adult’s.”
To understand how nutrition can improve children’s brains, researchers look at the structure of the brain, even at the cellular and neurological level, to determine what type of nutrition is needed to influence genes to reach their maximum potential during this time of rapid growth.
What Nutrients Do We Need?
Wetherill suggests that we take a synergistic approach to feeding our bodies. There’s no single food or supplement that will give us the nutrients we need. Rather, foods with multiple nutrients are most beneficial.
“I would recommend that first and foremost, parents should give their child or teen plenty of options to achieve good nutrition through a varied diet. Offer plenty of food options that are good sources of the nutrients that are the most important for brain health,” she says.
Parents also should consider a child’s developmental stage when they think about nutrition. “We know that there are these critical windows,” Wetherill says. “For example, in the first few years of life, iron is highly essential for neurodevelopment. If there is a deficiency during those years, even if it’s corrected, permanent problems with the brain can remain as the child grows into adulthood.”
Folate and Choline
“Folate is a B vitamin, and is a nutrient that plays a role in DNA synthesis and cell division. For these reasons, it plays a very important role for growing children.”
A brain that lacks folate will not have healthy cell division as it tries to grow. Pregnant moms take folate to prevent neural tube defects in their babies.
“Choline is also a critical nutrient for young children since it plays a role in building neurtrotransmitters,” Wetherill says. “The liver can create choline for our bodies, but its best to also get choline from the diet, since most scientists recognize it as an essential nutrient.”
Breast milk and egg yolks are rich in choline. And, while formula contains choline, it is not absorbed as efficiently as the choline in breast milk. “That’s one of the reasons why breastfeeding is so much more helpful for brain development than formula feeding,” Wetherill says. “Eggs are a great source of choline. For years, we villainized egg yolks as as being bad for heart health, but it’s the yolks that provide the choline. In fact, egg yolks provide many critical nutrients for growing brains.”
Zinc & Iron
“Zinc is a mineral that is involved in cell signaling and the production of neurotransmitters,” Wetherill says. “If your child is a very picky eater or eats a diet of healthy foods that is still low in variety, you may run into some issues with not getting enough zinc.”
Children also need the right amount of iron in their diets for proper development. Those who have been exposed to lead in the water supply or paint in older homes may suffer from iron deficiency because lead prevents the body from absorbing iron.
DHA has been touted as a supplement to improve memory, thinking ability and cognition. But is the media hype justified? The brain contains rich concentrations of DHA, a type of omega 3 fat.
“While we know that DHA is important, we do not know if a lot of supplementation after brain development is a good thing,” Wetherill says. “But we do know that an adequate supply during brain development is a good thing.”
Wetherill suggests that moms’ consumption of DHA before and while they’re pregnant has the greatest impact on their babies’ developing brains.
“The things a mom takes in while she’s pregnant can have profound influences on her child’s nutrition status and functioning independent of what the child eats after he or she is born,” Wetherill says. “For 1- to 3-year-olds and 4- to 8-year-olds in the United States, about half or more are not getting enough choline, and about a third are not getting enough of their omega 3s.”
However, only about 3 percent of U.S. children are lacking in zinc, folate and iron. “But, if you’re a parent of a picky eater, chances are your kid might be in that 3 percent,” Wetherill warns.
Overall, she says that “offering a variety of foods that are rich in these sources can set kids up for good brain development.”
Many children balk at certain foods making it difficult to provide a varied diet, but Wetherill encourages parents to keep trying, and to prepare foods in different ways. For example, if a child doesn’t like raw broccoli, try cooking it, or serve it with a fun dip.
“Strive to give kids nutrient-dense diets,” Wetherill says. “Try to get creative and be persistent because the more exposures children have to a varied diet, the more likely they’re not going to be picky eaters as they get older. If a child doesn’t like a food, you need to offer it multiple times. Those first few years of feeding kids and giving them lots of opportunities and chances to learn to like different foods is crucial, not only for having good nutrition for the brain, but good nutrition for all other aspects of wellbeing.”