When it comes to malnutrition, people usually assume that it’s related to low socio-economic status. Surprisingly, many children in developed countries are undernourished. But why? The problem is poor nutrition — diets based on fast foods and that are high in sugar, salt and bad fats. Children require a nutrient-rich diet to develop optimal brain function.
A 2011 study found that toddlers who ate a nutrient-rich diet full of fruits and vegetables had higher IQ scores compared to the toddlers who consumed processed foods full of fat and sugar. The foods eaten had a dramatic long term effect on the toddlers’ brain function.
Nutrition plays an important role in brain development from birth to adolescence. While the brain grows fastest in the early years of life, it continues to develop throughout adolescence. As such, a high nutrient diet is important to ensure adequate brain development.
Begin before Birth
Mothers who take care of their own nutrition, fitness and wellbeing during pregnancy are already giving their unborn children a head start in life. Breastfeeding mothers eating a high nutrient diet pass the nutrients on to their children, improving their children’s cognitive development and overall health. In fact, children who are breastfed for at least six months have higher IQ scores than children who are raised on formula. Once solid foods are introduced, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with higher IQ and better memory skills when children reach 4 years of age. In school-age children, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as increased cholesterol intake have been linked to diminished intelligence and poor academic performance.
What Should Your Child Be Eating?
- Focus on fruit and vegetables. Aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Fill half of your child’s dinner plate with vegetables and use fruits as snacks instead of sweets or cookies. Your child’s diet should be a rainbow of natural colours. The more food colours you include the better as each food colour provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
- Eat foods rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent or slow cell damage. A nutrient-dense diet provides the brains with supplementary antioxidant support. Because the brain uses the most oxygen and produces the most energy of any part of the body, it is highly susceptible to oxidative stress. As such, a healthy, antioxidant rich diet is especially beneficial for the brain and is likely involved in the association between plant food consumption and higher IQ scores.
- Not all fat is bad. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in a number of nuts, seeds and vegetables. They are important for healthy cognitive and memory function as well as behaviour. Omega-3 is also essential.
- Say no to sugar. Eating excess refined sugar can lead to insulin resistance, which can result in damaged brain cells, not to mention type 2 diabetes. This occurs because the brain requires high amounts of glucose to function and becomes deprived of nutrients if the body cannot use insulin properly. Eating more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit can help balance blood sugar levels for healthier brain development and function.
Good Nutrition Lays the Foundation for Learning
Children need all the building blocks of good nutrition: protein, carbohydrates and fats. Helping children make healthier food choices is an essential part of their education and well-being. Simple carbohydrates and refined foods will cause sugar highs, a lack of focus and concentration. Healthy foods fuel the brain, enabling children to be more attentive and able to enjoy learning.
Helen Doron English introduces a series of 5 blog posts to help parents lay the very best foundation for their child’s learning. These posts highlight everyday activities to do with your child. From colouring, to music, healthy eating tips and even positive encouragement, these are simple tips that can make a big difference!