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6 Foods to Boost Your Child’s Brain Function

Healthy brain function relies on a healthy body. Support your child’s intellectual development by supporting her nutrition with these foods.

Little girl wearing glasses smiles and points to her brain.

Experts agree that the first 1,000 days of life are critical for the development of optimal brain function. In addition, the human brain is 95% developed by the time we reach six years old.

These facts indicate that optimising early childhood nutrition is vital to ensure your child realises their full potential. Read on to learn about some key brain nutrients and what foods you can find these nutrients in.

Impact of Key Nutrients on Brain Function in Early Childhood

Decades-long research highlights a set of macronutrients and micronutrients that are specifically important for brain development and function.

Macronutrients

Foods rich in fats
Macronutrients are needed for energy and for the body to maintain its structure and systems. It can be found in meats, nuts, cheeses, and beans.

Amino acids from protein are needed by the brain to synthesise neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals forming connections between neurons (brain nerve cells) in a child’s growing brain.

Another essential macronutrient is polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) such as omega 3. This group of macronutrients is involved in creating and migrating neurons in a developing brain.

Micronutrients

Food sources of natural antioxidants such as fruits
Calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc can be found in food such as broccoli, beans, berries, oranges, and nuts.

A growing brain also needs certain micronutrients. Iron is involved in the activity of proteins and enzymes needed for brain growth. It is also required for the development of hormone systems in early life.   

Zinc, iodine, and vitamin B12 are crucial in the formation and transport of neurons, as well as the development of specialised structures and areas of the brain. Copper, choline, and folate are also involved in a host of important structural and neurotransmitter development in the brain.

6 Foods to Boost Your Child’s Brain Function 

Salmon, prawns, walnuts, broccoli, basil, and grains are displayed on a wooden table.
Proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients like iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin B12 are vital for brain function and development in children under three years old.

Here are 6 nutrient-rich brain-boosting foods to support your child’s optimal brain function.

1. Oily Fish

Oily fish such as mackerel and sardines are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Seafood is good for the brain as it contains other essential nutrients like zinc, iodine, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin B2, and protein.

The benefits of omega-3 consumed in the first 12 months of life are critical to cognitive development later in childhood. Hence, you should start incorporating these into your child’s diet early.

2. Eggs

Eggs are a great source of choline and vitamin B12. It is also another excellent protein source. Research has shown that choline, like copper and zinc, is important for cognitive development in the womb and during early infancy.

3. Lean meats

Not only are they another source of protein, but lean meats can also help ensure your little one gets enough iron in their diet. Today’s experts still agree on findings from an early landmark study on sufficient macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates). It showed children who received sufficient levels of these macronutrients before age two scored higher on reading, numeracy, reading, and vocabulary.

4. Beans

Your family may be vegetarian. If so, beans are a great meat substitute for your growing child. In addition to being high in protein, beans are excellent sources of choline, folate, iron, zinc, and vitamins B1, B6, E and K. Did you know that certain types of beans like kidney and soybeans are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

5. Leafy Greens

This one goes without saying, though it is worth repeating. Leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach are a powerhouse of crucial vitamins and minerals, such as iron and folate.

Chlorophyta or green algae (lu zao, 绿藻) and leafy greens (spinach, arugula, and watercress) contain chlorophyll, the phytochemicals responsible for their bright green hue. Chlorophyll can maintain liver health, rejuvenate blood, and improve anaemia symptoms. 

Try to incorporate these early on to develop a vegetable-loving palate in your child. If your child isn’t keen, there are plenty of ways to “sneak” in these veggies without them knowing. 

Ensuring your child gets enough iron early is critical to their brain development. Research confirms that catch-up iron supplementation can be too late, so getting adequate iron through diet is crucial.

6. Nuts, seeds, and berries

One group of brain-boosting foods that won’t need hiding are colourful, nutrient-rich nuts, seeds, and berries. Peanut butter, for example, is a tasty treat that’s also a good source of zinc. Meanwhile, phytonutrients like anthocyanins in berries help improve connections between neurons and prevent cell damage.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), adding berries such as goji berries (gou qi zi, 枸杞子), hawthorn berries (shan zha, 山楂), and mulberries (sang shen, 桑椹) benefit the body in various ways. “Goji berries tonify the Liver and Kidney yin (passive energy), as well as nourish essence (jing, 精) and blood,” says Eu Yan Sang TCM Physician Vong U Chan.

Mulberry is a tonic herb for the Liver and Kidneys as it nourishes yin and blood. Eat it fresh or use it as dried fruit in cooking. 

Hawthorn berry aids indigestion from the overconsumption of meat or fatty foods and overeating. It can improve blood circulation, digest fats, lower blood cholesterol and relax constricted blood vessels.

Other Brain Boosters to Consider

A top view of ginkgo biloba leaves, seeds, and extract on top of a black surface.
Foods or supplements containing ginkgo biloba can help improve brain function in adults and children.

Malaysian parents also have access to other knowledge bases in terms of child nutrition, such as TCM. Real Medical Senior TCM physician Brandon Yew highlights that insufficient nutrition can disrupt qi (vital energy) and blood circulation. “This can cause the formation and accumulation of pathogenic factors like Dampness, phlegm, Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis within the meridian channels, impeding the proper distribution of nutrients to the orifices of the head and the brain,” he explains.

Consider adding medicinal foods such as ginkgo biloba or ginseng to your child’s diet. Preliminary findings from a 2014 pilot study demonstrated cognitive improvement in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when supplemented with ginkgo biloba. Another recent study on ADHD showed similar findings with omega-3 and Korean red ginseng supplementation.

Acupuncture is another TCM modality that can benefit brain development and function. A 2018 study published in Rheumatology and Orthopedic Medicine found that acupuncture improved neural development in children with cerebral palsy, in contrast with rehabilitation training alone.

Optimal brain function, development, and preservation begin with nutrition. Ensure your child realises their full intellectual potential from the get-go. The positive impact will last a lifetime – just some food for thought.

References

  1. HealthyChildren.org. 2018. Food for Thought: American Academy of Pediatrics Aims to Ensure Kids Get Key Nutrients for Brain Development During First 1,000 Days of Life. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/AAP-aims-to-ensure-kids-get-nutrients-for-brain-development-policy.aspx> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2018. Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days to Support Childhood Development and Adult Health. [online] Available at: <https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/141/2/e20173716/38085/Advocacy-for-Improving-Nutrition-in-the-First-1000?autologincheck=redirected?nfToken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  3. Acta Paediatrica. 2018. Nutritional Influences on Brain Development. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045434/?report=classic> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  4. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2016. The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development: The Golden Opportunity of the “First 1000 Days”. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4981537/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  5. Food for the Brain Foundation. Nutrition Information by Life Stage – Infancy (0-3). [online] Available at: <https://foodforthebrain.org/infancy/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  6. Food for the Brain Foundation. Nutrition Information by Life Stage – Childhood (4-11). [online] Available at: <https://foodforthebrain.org/childhood/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  7. University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Health. 2022. Baby brain food: 7 foods to fuel brain development. [online] Available at: <https://connect.uclahealth.org/2022/05/05/baby-brain-food-7-foods-to-fuel-brain-development/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  8. Only About Children. 2022. Brain Boosting Foods for Children. [online] Available at: <https://www.oac.edu.au/news-views/brain-boosting-foods-for-children/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  9. Zeitschrift für Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie und Psychotherapie. 2014. Ginkgo biloba Extract EGb 761®in Children with ADHD: Preliminary Findings of an Open Multilevel Dose-Finding Study. [online] Available at: <https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/epdf/10.1024/1422-4917/a000309> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  10. Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience. 2020. Effect of Omega-3 and Korean Red Ginseng on Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: An Open-Label Pilot Study. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7006981/> [Accessed 1 October 2022]
  11. Rheumatology and Orthopedic Medicine. 2018. A randomized controlled study and evaluation of children with cerebral palsy by mind acupuncture. [online] Available at: <https://oatext.com/a-randomized-controlled-study-and-evaluation-of-children-with-cerebral-palsy-by-mind-acupuncture.php – Article> [Accessed 1 October 2022]

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