Nutrients for Your Brain
For good health and optimum brain power, a child's diet should contain the "proper" amounts of certain nutrients. Balance and variety are the keys, and a deficiency in just one vital nutrient can impair cognitive performance.
The brain needs a constant and steady supply of glucose, which supplies it with the energy it needs. Carbohydrate foods, and preferably complex carbohydrates, are the best sources, and should make up about a third of a child's diet.
Carbohydrates come in two forms: simple (also known as sugars) and complex (starches). Sugars are either intrinsic, such as those already present in fruit, or extrinsic, such as refined sugar added to sweets, cakes and cookies.
The carbohydrates in your child's diet should be made up principally of intrinsic sugars and unrefined complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain bread, potatoes, legumes, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and vegetables. Unrefined carbohydrates are preferable to refined because they are higher in nutrients and fiber and, crucially for the brain, they help to keep blood sugar levels steady, providing long-term, sustained energy.
Refined, sugary foods lead to a surge in blood sugar levels, which can be followed by a slump. Your child's concentration and attention span will wane and he or she will become fatigued. Extreme highs and lows in blood sugar levels can result in dizziness, irritability and mood swings.
We actually need relatively small amounts of protein (children aged 4 to 10 need between 1/2 to 1 ounce per day), but variety is important to get the full spectrum of the different nutrients found in protein foods. Protein is found in both animal (meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products) and plant sources (beans, lentils, nuts and seeds).
Protein is made up of 25 amino acids. Eight of these are known as essential amino acids because they have to be provided by diet and are not made in the body. Among their many roles, amino acids are crucial for making neurotransmitters, the brain's messengers, and so are vital to brain chemistry and emotions. The amino acid tyrosine, found in fish, dairy products, eggs, oats and turkey, can lift mood and increase alertness, while another amino acid, phenylalanine, is used to regulate blood sugar through insulin.
Proteins are said to satisfy the appetite for longer periods than carbohydrates, yet the latter are believed to provide long-term energy. Many foods are a combination of the two.
The brain is composed of 60 percent fat, which has to come from the diet. The type of fat your child eats, therefore, affects the composition of the fats in his or her brain. This is why it is so important to include the "right" types of fat in your child's diet, as these are essential for brain development and enable children to think and to store and retrieve memories.
The most useful group of fats for brain and eye function are the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but these are also the ones children (and adults) are least likely to get from their diets. A deficiency in omega-3 is said to be one of the major causes of degenerative disease and of a corresponding decline in brain function. There also appears to be a correlation between fatty acid levels in infants and their intellectual and behavioral performance as children.
You will find the richest amounts of omega-3 in oily fish. It also is found in eggs and some plant foods; however, these omega-3s are not as potent as those found in fish oils.
The other essential fatty acid is omega-6, found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds, as well as corn, safflower and sunflower oils. Phospholipids, other fatty-acid substances found particularly in eggs, fish and soybeans, are needed for brain cell membrane repair and the transmission of electrical nerve impulses.
Bad fats include saturated as well as hydrogenated or trans fats, which have a negative effect on the brain. Once the hydrogenated fat gets into the cell walls, it interferes with the assimilation of nutrients, resulting in toxic buildup. Unfortunately, it is very easy for children to eat too many "bad" fats, especially if their diets are made up mainly of highly processed or fast foods. Hydrogenated fat is found in a wide range of manufactured foods, from margarine, sausages and salad dressings to pies, cookies and cakes. Fortunately, some major food producers are attempting to reduce (or even eliminate) the hydrogenated fat content of their products.
Signs of Fatty-Acid Deficiency
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Dry skin and hair
- Soft, brittle nails
- Rough, hard skin on arms and legs
- Behavioral problems
- Learning difficulties
- Poor concentration and memory
- Poor vision
Vitamins and Minerals
Brain function is influenced by a variety of essential vitamins and minerals, and pound for pound a child needs a lot more than the average adult. Vitamins and minerals are also crucial for the production of energy, boosting the immune system, the nervous system and practically every body process.
Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants that protect the brain and body from toxins and pollution. Vitamin C is essential for a healthy immune system and for turning food into mental and physical energy. It also helps us to absorb iron.
B vitamins are vital for brain function, a healthy nervous system and energy metabolism. They are important in the production of the brain neurotransmitters (messengers) dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline and serotonin. Poor concentration and memory, lack of energy, insomnia and irritability are signs of possible deficiency.
Calcium and magnesium are known as nature's tranquilizers, since they relax nerve and muscle cells. A lack of these minerals can make children feel nervous, irritable and aggressive. A deficiency of choline, a vitamin-like compound, has been linked to possible memory and thought impairment. Along with lecithin and the B vitamins, choline enables the body to produce acetylcholine, which transmits electrical impulses to the brain and nervous system. Zinc is crucial for memory and brain function. It is also said to be important in the synthesis of the brain-calming chemical serotonin. Boron has been found to aid memory and improve attention and mental alertness and is essential for energy metabolism.
Iron has many functions in the body, one of which is to carry oxygen in the blood. Deficiency can make children feel tired and irritable and less able to concentrate, as well as affecting their development. Numerous studies have found that there are a great number of children (and adults) throughout the world lacking in this vital brain nutrient. Increasing iron consumption can lift mood and reduce anger, while an American study has linked higher intake of iron with a reduction in depression in teenage girls.
Research has also been conducted to see if there is a link between iron in the diet and IQ, and some of these studies have shown a possible positive link between IQ scores and iron intake. Iron from animal sources is better absorbed than that from plant sources, but drinking a glass of orange juice with an iron-rich meal will help to encourage absorption.
Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that can protect the brain from heavy metals such as lead, used in pipes, and mercury, part of the amalgam used in dental fillings. Even small amounts of heavy metals can accumulate in the tissues and interfere with brain chemistry. Chromium helps in the control of blood glucose levels.
Although essential to keep a mature digestive system working correctly, too many unrefined whole grains and cereals should not be given to children aged under 5. Babies and young children can find fiber difficult to digest in large quantities. They may become full before they have eaten the variety of foods needed for a balanced diet. Instead, offer a balance of refined and unrefined starchy foods.
Multivitamin and Mineral Supplements
There are numerous studies to show that intelligence, especially nonverbal, improves when children are given a multivitamin and mineral supplement. However, the general view is that supplements are most effective when a child's diet is poor. If a child follows a healthy and balanced diet, the effects are not so apparent.
Supplements should never be viewed as a replacement for a good diet, but the chances are fairly likely that a typical child eating a typical diet will experience subtle deficiencies in key nutrients at some stage in his or her life. Many manufacturers have come up with multivitamin and mineral supplements specifically for children, and these are the safest bet for parents, since the nutrients are carefully balanced and in the recommended daily amounts. It also is possible to buy essential fatty acid blends (containing omega-3 and -6) for children either in oil or capsule form if you feel your child could be lacking in these.
Vital Vitamins and Minerals, and Where to Find Them
- Vitamin E – Nuts and seeds and their oils.
- Vitamin A – Animal foods including dairy, meat, fish and eggs (as retinol), and in fruit and vegetables (as beta carotene).
- Vitamin C – Kiwi and citrus fruit, berries, green vegetables, tomatoes and bell peppers.
- B vitamins – Whole grains, eggs, green vegetables, brown rice, meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Calcium – Dairy products, almonds, apricots, seeds, sardines and green leafy vegetables.
- Magnesium – Soybeans, whole grains, nuts, dried fruit, green leafy vegetables and meat.
- Choline – Egg yolk, sardines, liver, nuts, legumes and grains.
- Zinc – Dark turkey meat, shellfish, beans and whole grains.
- Boron – Nuts, apples, broccoli, peas, grapes and legumes.
- Iron – Red meat, molasses, cocoa, parsley, eggs, legumes, green vegetables, liver, shellfish and fortified breakfast cereals.
- Selenium – Whole grains, cereals, tuna, shellfish, liver, dairy products and eggs.
- Chromium – Red meat, eggs, cheese, seafood, whole grains.