What does a child's brain need for optimal development?

A child's brain needs certain foods for proper development.
A child's brain needs certain foods for proper development.

For an organ that takes up only two percent of the body mass, the brain utilizes up to 20 percent of energy. The brain needs a complex mixture of proteins, good fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals to function and grow. Better nutrition, therefore, translates to better brain development and academic performance in a child. Some foods are extremely healthy for the brain. The brain needs them for its proper development.

Complex carbohydrates

  • Carbohydrates are the main sources of glucose, which provides energy to the body.
  • Starchy foods, whole-grain bread, fibers in vegetables and fruits are the best sources of complex carbohydrates. These release energy slowly and maintain optimal brain functioning.
  • Choosing whole-grain foods, such as whole-grain bread, pasta, or oatmeal, instead of white bread and avoiding sugary food is advisable.

Essential fatty acids

  • They are extremely important since the brain is high in fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish (such as salmon, cod), flaxseed. Omega-6 is found in poultry, eggs, and avocado.
  • It’s better to avoid trans fats or hydrogenated fats, such as those found in cakes and biscuits, since they try to obstruct the functioning of the essential fatty acids.

Amino acids

  • Amino acids constitute the neurotransmitters in the brain, which help regulate moods, sleep-wake cycles, and memory.
  • The milk and oats contain the amino acid tryptophan, which produces serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls sleep and happiness.

Vitamins and minerals

  • They are important for the proper functioning of the body. The lack of vitamins and minerals can affect brain functions and mood.
  • Vitamins, such as folate and B12, are important for the proper functioning of the nervous system. It is found in leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, broccoli. B12 is found in eggs, fish, and whole grains.
  • A deficit in these vitamins can lead to memory problems, fatigue, weak muscles, mouth ulcers, and psychological problems.

Protein

  • Protein is vital to building the cells that make up the body. Children need protein, especially during the growth years. It also is essential for brain cell development.
  • High-quality protein sources include milk, eggs, meat, chicken, and fish.

Iron

  • Iron is important for blood cell formation and healthy brain development. Children must get enough of it every day.
  • The main sources of iron are red meat, tuna, salmon, eggs, legumes, dried fruits (such as raisins and dates), green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and broccoli), and whole grains (such as wheat).

Zinc

  • Zinc deficiency can lead to slower mental development. Most children do not get the right amount of zinc.
  • Zinc-rich food may include meat, fish, egg, cheese, nuts, and grains.

Lutein and zeaxanthin

  • Technically two different nutrients, both lutein, and zeaxanthin are carotenoids (plant pigments with strong antioxidant properties). These have been found to support memory, improve processing speed and efficiency and perhaps even promote academic performance, especially when consumed together.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale, are great sources of lutein. Eggs, corn, kiwi, grapes, oranges, and zucchini pack plenty of both lutein and zeaxanthin as well.

Choline

  • This nutrient is especially important for the proper functioning of a child’s brain because it acts as a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
  • Acetylcholine is a component of phospholipids and plays a major role in the development of cell membranes.
  • Though it can be manufactured by the body, the quantity is not sufficient. Therefore, including food sources rich in choline in children’s diet is necessary.
  • Some of the rich sources of choline are eggs (egg yolk), beans, broccoli, sprouts, yogurt, and cauliflower.

Causes of Childhood Obesity

Most obesity is caused by excessive daily caloric intake relative to daily caloric expenditure. Excessive intake of calories is most commonly associated with poor food-quality choices (for example, fast-food high in fat and sugar calories) but may also result from over-ingestion of "healthy foods." The simple biological fact is that all excessive calories (regardless whether triple cheese meat lovers pizza vs. fat free yogurt with berries) will be stored by the body and only as fat. Attempts at only reducing caloric intake without increasing caloric utilization (read: 60 minutes daily vigorous exercise) will only help temporarily. If calorie restriction is the sole approach toward losing weight, the body's metabolism adopts a conservation mode and learns how to get by on fewer calories. Adding physical activity to the calorie-burning equation encourages breakdown of excessive carbohydrate and fat stores, allowing for more functional and long-term health.

What are the best brain foods for children?

Research shows that the following are common healthy foods for the child's brain:

  1. Vegetables: Tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, onions, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumber, and kale
  2. Fruits: Apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, oranges, dates, and melons
  3. Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds
  4. Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, pulses, and chickpeas
  5. Tubers: Sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, and yam
  6. Whole grains: Whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, whole-grain bread, and pasta
  7. Fish and seafood: Fish, such as sardines, tuna, trout, mackerel. Seafood, such as oysters, shrimps, crabs, and mussels
  8. Poultry: Chicken, turkey, and duck
  9. Eggs: Duck, quail, and chicken eggs
  10. Dairy: Greek yogurt and cheese
  11. Herbs and spices: Garlic, basil, mint, sage, rosemary, mint, nutmeg, and cinnamon
  12. Healthy fats: Extra virgin olive oil, avocados, olives, and avocado oil
  13. Others: Blueberries, peanuts, oatmeal, and regular water intake

A variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals contribute to the brain development of children. So, try and provide children with balanced meals that include items from all major food groups. Consulting a pediatrician or nutritionist to chart customized meal plans for children can help ensure proper brain development.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/23/2021
References
Davis, J.L. "Top 10 Brain Foods for Children." WebMD. Aug. 4, 2010. <https://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/brain-foods-for-children>.