By Nancy Gottesman
Remember how your ob-gyn (and every pregnancy-related magazine and book you read!) stressed the importance of your diet for your fetus’s brain and neural development? Well, now it’s your toddler’s own eating habits that are crucial.
Little kids’ brains develop quickly—not just during pregnancy, but also during their first three years of life. This rapid growth places a great demand on diet because food literally supplies the building blocks that help form your child’s brain. “More than any other organ in the body, the brain is the most susceptible to nutrition in early childhood,” says William Sears, MD, author of more than 40 books on childcare and nutrition.
New science shows a clear connection between diet and brain growth during the preschool years. A handful of specific foods and nutrients are emerging as brain-power brokers, the ones that enhance your child’s intellectual abilities, his behavior and even his moods. Here’s how to make sure your tot gets enough brain-building foods every day.
Believe it or not, fat makes up a whopping 60 percent of the brain’s weight. It also enhances communication from cell to cell, which enables your toddler to to think, walk, talk—and do everything else she does.
Because the body is not able to make all of these essential fatty acids itself, the brain relies on fats from oily fish and other healthy food sources to provide these super-vital brain nutrients. “The omega-3 fats in fish are the most important for children’s brain development,” says Sears, whose recently-published The Omega-3 Effect explains the link between dietary fats and brain growth, learning, behavior and ability to pay attention.
The best fish sources of omega-3 fats are salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, trout and other oily fish. (For a kid-friendly, omega-3 fat-rich lunch, try our recipe for Green Monster Tuna Salad Roll-Ups.) Your child’s developing brain also benefits from plant sources of healthy fats: canola, olive and other healthy oils; avocado; flax seeds; and nut butters (such as walnut and almond). “These plant fats help provide better blood flow to your child’s brain,” explains Sarah B. Krieger, MPH, RD, a pediatric dietician at All Children’s Hospital in St Petersburg, Fla., and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Eggs and Other Heady Proteins
Eggs contain choline, an essential nutrient required for healthy brain and nerve function. Research shows that choline enhances memory and lifelong learning ability, especially in developing fetuses, newborns and young children. Yet only 10 percent of U.S. children consume the recommended amounts of this vital brain-building nutrient.
Toddlers and preschoolers need just 200 milligrams daily of choline, which is easy to incorporate into a child’s diet. Egg yolks are the best source, with one hard-boiled egg containing 294 milligrams. Chicken liver, soybeans, beef, milk and peanuts are also good sources.
And all protein foods, whether or not they contain choline, are vital to your child’s brain development. Beef, chicken, fish, nuts, beans, tofu and other sources of protein are crucial in times of growth (such as pregnancy and early childhood) because they are the cellular building blocks.
There are good sugars for your tot’s brain, and there are some really bad ones. Your assignment, Mom, is to learn the difference.
The body doesn’t store glucose (energy from carbohydrates), so it needs to be replenished on a regular basis. Foods that contain natural (not added) sugars—such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products—provide the brain with a sustained, long-lasting source of glucose. Studies have shown that children who eat foods containing these healthy sugars perform better in school, can focus longer and score higher on tests. Foods like strawberries, carrots, oatmeal and unsweetened yogurt all contain good-for-the-brain sugars, for example.
Bad-for-the-brain sugars are rapidly digested, low-fiber carbohydrates such as sweetened cereals, soda pop, candy, cookies and chips. These foods provide the brain with an initial jolt of glucose because they raise blood sugar levels quickly. After that peak, however, brain function suffers because there’s nothing left in the glucose tank. These brain-drainers do not provide the prolonged mental energy your child needs to think, pay attention and recall.
“Remember, the foods that are bad for your child’s developing body are also bad for his brain,” affirms Hans Kersten, MD, medical director of the Grow Clinic at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, a medical center that evaluates diets in order to promote children’s mental and physical development. He explains that children’s overconsumption of foods that cause poor weight gain, such as juice or soda, can adversely affect brain development and IQ over the long term.
Breakfast Like a Little King
Numerous studies show that kids who eat breakfast perform better in school. But what they eat in the a.m. makes a huge difference, too. Tufts University researchers found that children ages 6 to 8 were more attentive and scored higher on tests when they ate oatmeal than when they had processed cereal for breakfast.
“Oatmeal and other whole grains break down into glucose more slowly, providing a time-release, rather than a burst, of energy,” explains the study’s co-author Holly A. Taylor, PhD, a professor of psychology at Tufts University in Medford, Ma.
Because their brains (and bodies) are growing so rapidly, little kids are more susceptible to the ill effects of a brief overnight fast than older kids and teens. Without healthy a.m. fare, 2- and 3-year-olds will be unable to focus and concentrate in daycare or preschool.
“We find the effects of eating breakfast are even more pronounced in younger children due to their increased metabolism,” says Taylor. Experts suggest that young children eat within one hour (at most) after waking up. (Wondering about the best a.m. foods for younger kids? See our Brainy Breakfast Guide.)
Food for thought: What your toddler eats today will affect his smarts for years to come.