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Brain Development Through Food

How Nutritious Food Boosts Brain Development in Kids

We know that nutritious food is good for the body and soul, but can certain foods boost brain development? Can foods actually help kids learn?

"This is obviously pretty controversial but there is plenty of research to show that diet can influence IQ," says Nicola Graimes, author of Brain Foods for Kids (Delta, 2005) and mother of two. "Numerous studies confirm that eating fish oils, for example, can raise IQ levels and benefit children with learning difficulties, dyslexia and behavioral problems, including ADHD. A well-balanced and varied diet can also help improve concentration, irritability, mood swings, memory, energy levels and tiredness."

Peggy O'Shea, a Boston-based registered dietician and president of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association board of directors, believes there are no specific foods that will boost "brain development," but does agree with Graimes about the mental health benefits. "Studies are beginning to show more and more the link between what kids eat and how they behave, think and learn," she says. "Some foods ... can affect mood and feelings."

Carbohydrates, for example, are "fuel" for the brain. "A steady stream is its ideal source of energy," O'Shea says. "Some carbohydrates actually tend to excite the brain and others calm it." While this does not necessarily boost brain development, it can affect a child's behavior and mood, which, in turn, can affect learning.

Graimes gives a special mention to iron because of a positive link between IQ scores and adequate iron intake. "Lack of iron is associated with delays in development, poor concentration, irritability, mood swings, fatigue and depression," she says. "However, iron deficiency is particularly common in children, particularly among toddlers and teenage girls. Iron from animal sources (red meat, liver, shellfish) is better absorbed than that from plant sources (molasses, apricots, green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs), but eating a food rich in vitamin C with an iron-rich meal will help encourage absorption."

Oh, Those Omegas

Jon Gordon, author of Energy Addict: 101 Physical, Mental and Spiritual Ways to Energize Your Life (Perigee Books, 2004) and co-founder of PEP (Positive Energy Program), a nonprofit organization helping to develop positive and healthy kids, says children need to eat more omega-3s. "Omega-3s are the essential building blocks for a healthy brain," he says. Gordon says this is not surprising, considering the brain is 60 percent structural fat, and the brain's synaptic membranes and connections, where much of the communication traffic or neurological function happens, is composed of a large portion of essential fatty acids.

"The problem is that since most children are not eating enough fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish and eating too much processed foods, they are not consuming enough omega-3s," Gordon says. "And with an inadequate supply of omega-3s, the brain cells cannot communicate or work properly, which is very important if you are a child whose brain is trying to form new neural pathways during the learning process."

The Most Important Meal of the Day

But it's not just about the right diet. It's also about eating the right quantity and quality of food, and at the right time of day, Graimes says. "Research has found that eating breakfast is the best way to get brain cells fired up, improving concentration and mental clarity," she says. "Children who eat a decent breakfast perform better at school, especially in classes that involve numeracy, problem solving and language skills."

"Our mothers were right when they said that breakfast was the most important part of the day," says Ann Cooper, former executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition at The Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., and author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge, 2000). "We just can't think without fuel and this is especially true of children. Assuming a child eats dinner at 6 or 7 p.m. and skips breakfast – lunch may be as many as 17 hours away – no 'fuel' no brain function. Eating breakfast helps children learn – helps to prevent behavioral problems – helps to prevent tardiness and absenteeism."

Cooper says the best breakfast foods are complex carbohydrates and protein – not sugary cereals. "Protein helps us 'wake up,' and helps us get going and start thinking," she says. "Complex carbs help evenly run our 'engines' without the spikes and roller coaster of simple sugars." As breakfast choices, Cooper suggests whole-grain, hot cereals with raw unsalted nuts and dried fruits, or low-fat granola made with maple syrup or honey with similar toppings. "Eggs a couple times a week are fine – try pairing them with cooked tomatoes or greens," she says.

A Balancing Act

But the most important thing that parents can do to ensure that children develop properly on all fronts is to provide a well-balanced diet overall, O'Shea says. "A well-balanced diet is most important to make certain that a child develops normally from all perspectives," she says. "It's important to note that while there are certain nutrients that may be 'called out' as brain food or having impact on the brain, it really is critical to have a well-balanced diet in order to achieve optimal brain function. Nutrients in isolation can't always do their job without interaction from other nutrients." A healthy diet should include fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein.

Gordon agrees. "Children need a diet that contains various sources of vitamins and minerals," he says. For "energy foods," he recommends blueberries, nuts, raisins, dark leafy greens, yogurt, eggs and lean meat. Foods high in omega-3s include wild Alaskan salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, tuna, sardines, fish oil and certain enhanced eggs.

Melissa Turner, a mother of two from Houston, Texas, serves fish to her family at least twice a week. "After reading the good things about fish for children and adults, I've added it to my weekly shopping list," she says. "My kids love salmon, halibut, cod and orange roughy the best. I've found that if I sprinkle a teaspoon or two of brown sugar during cooking, it creates a sweetness that my children love and they tend to eat more."

Oily fish, eggs and nuts are on Graimes' list, but she also includes fruit and vegetables and whole-grains (brown rice, whole-wheat bread and pasta). "[Whole grains] are a good source of all the key brain nutrients and also help to boost serotonin levels, the brain-calming, mood-enhancing chemical," she says. "Whole grains also help to keep blood sugar levels steady, fluctuations of which can lead to irritability and poor concentration."

And Graimes points out that most children do not drink enough water, favoring sugar-laden, carbonated drinks. "Dehydration affects concentration and intellectual performance, as well as the transportation of nutrients around the body," she says. "A 2 percent loss in body fluids, for example, can cause a 20 percent reduction in both physical and mental performance."

But even if we prepare all the right foods, it doesn't mean anything if kids won't eat it. So, above all, remember to make eating fun, so kids will actually want to eat. "Eating well should be enjoyable and not about deprivation," Graimes says. "Food is one of our real pleasures in life and as such, try to encourage your child to love and appreciate good food."

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