Eating for healthy brain function: some of the best foods to feed your kids for optimal brain growth and development

Georgie Stephen Children's Health, Mental Health Leave a Comment

Every parent wants the best for their child. We invest precious time and money on enriching their lives with daily activities, sending them to the best schools and ensuring all of their needs are met and fulfilled. And while all of these investments are worthwhile and beneficial, we often overlook the value and importance of providing them with healthy foods and good nutrition to ensure they have healthy brain function. We want our kids to think clearly, maintain focus and concentration and we want them to learn and grasp new concepts easily. The brain and nervous system rely heavily on a good supply of some key essential nutrients to support healthy brain development.

The developing brain

The majority of brain development occurs within the first three years of life, with some researchers declaring this time as “the golden opportunity” to be able to provide nutritional support and influence developmental outcomes. Nervous system development and maturation continues on after these years, well into adolescence and early adult hood, although the pace at which this occurs dramatically slows and there is a shift towards favouring different biological processes (Stiles & Jernigan, 2010). Therefore, the childhood and adolescent years represent an important time for us to focus on nurturing brain growth through diet.

Nutrition for brain development

Knowing which foods to give your kids at which particular stage of life and in what amounts can be enough to make you go cross-eyed. But rest assured that if you aim to feed your kids a whole food-based diet around 80% of the time you will be providing them with all of the essential building blocks for healthy growth and development. You can read more about whole foods eating here and here (and some tips on how to transition to this way of eating here).

On top of this, to supercharge their brain growth and development, we can focus in on a few key foods that are particularly important for developing brains:

Fish

Fish is an excellent source of essential fatty acids (EFAs) – long chain fatty acid molecules that we must consume in the foods we eat, as our body is unable to make them itself. Omega-3 is one of these EFAs and it is vital to the growth of new brain cells. Omega-3 is a nutrient that kids frequently don’t eat enough of.

All fish have some omega-3, but the best sources are oily ocean fish such as salmon, mackerel, ocean trout, herring, anchovies or sardines. Omega-3 is also found in some plant-based foods, although in much smaller quantities, including foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts and walnut oil.

Fish can be a very challenging food to get into kids, so try some of these recipes for kid-friendly meals:

Legumes

Legumes are a brain food by virtue of the fibre they provide to our digestive system. No doubt we’ve all heard somewhere along the grapevine that fibre is good for our health and this applies just as much to kids as it does to adults.

Fibre not only helps to keep our bowel motions regular, ensuring our kids experience comfortable digestion of foods, but certain types of fibre, known as prebiotic fibre, feed our gut bacteria and help our microbiome to flourish.

We now understand that the microbiome is involved in the development of the nervous system and brain, and that the gut-brain connection is an important factor influencing mood, behaviour, and mental health. The microbiome undergoes significant development and maturation in the first few years of life, therefore, ensuring that we are providing enough of the right types of fibre to fuel the growth of these bacteria is essential for our kids.

Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are one of the best sources of prebiotic fibres. As an added bonus, they also provide lots of protein, ‘slow’ carbs (that help with stable blood sugar levels), and other essential nutrients like zinc, some B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and iron – all nutrients required for brain development and nervous system function.

Try some of these meal and snack ideas for getting extra legumes into your kids:

  • Hummus – serve with veggie sticks
  • Add a can of chickpeas into any curry style meal, a can of brown lentils into a Bolognese sauce, or canned beans into soups and stews (aim to buy organic cans)
  • Try baking with cannellini beans – for example, these white bean cupcakes
  • Chickpeas lend themselves well to sweet recipes, like these chocolate-chip chickpea cookies
  • You can now buy toasted fava bean and chickpeas in different kid-friendly flavours at the supermarket – check the health food isle for The Happy Snack Company products

Eggs

If there ever was such a thing as a ‘superfood’, the humble egg would easily be the winner. One of nature’s original nutritional powerhouses, an egg contains a vast array of the essential nutrients required for brain and nervous system development, including protein, EFAs, zinc, iron, vitamin B12, choline, selenium, and iodine, amongst other nutrients that support overall body health. Eggs are also one of the best sources of phospholipids – nutritional building blocks required to make the protective outer coating that houses the sensitive axons of our brain cells, improving the speed and clarity at which brain cells communicate with one another.

Some ideas for getting eggs into your kids’ daily meals include:

  • Eggs with soldiers or quick omelettes for breakfast
  • Boil up a large pot of eggs and store the boiled eggs in their shells in the fridge for up to 5 days – you can grab these on the run for a quick and easy snack, a ready-made breakfast or send one pre-peeled off to school in the lunchbox
  • Make lunchbox friendly egg muffins (also good for breakfast)
  • 2 ingredient, 5-minute banana pancakes
  • Frittatas for dinner

Pumpkin seeds

All nuts and seeds are great for the developing brain, as they provide an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and micronutrients. But, in particular, the often-overlooked pumpkin seed (aka pepita) is a fabulous food for our growing kids. As a bonus, they are lunchbox friendly, making them a great food to keep your kids fuelled throughout their kinder or school day.

Pumpkin seeds contain lots of protein and good fats (EFAs), both essential for brain growth and function. They are also one of the best plant-based sources of zinc – just one tablespoon of seeds contains over 30% of the recommended daily intake for kids aged 1-3 y/o and 25% for those 4-8 y/o.

Zinc, an essential mineral, is extremely important for developing brains and many kids are deficient. Processed and refined foods are notoriously low in zinc, so many kids who prefer ‘white’ foods miss out on getting adequate amounts through their food.

The benefits of zinc for the brain are manifold, where it is needed for brain cell growth and replication, as an antioxidant to protect brain tissues, for the production of neurotransmitters, and for its involvement in thyroid health, which subsequently supports brain health.

You can try making your own toasted pumpkin seeds at home (watch this 2 minute video for a super easy recipe) – you can make a big batch and store in a jar, sending little snack packs in the lunchboxes of your little ones. You can also buy them pre-toasted and in different flavours at the health food store.

Other recipes that can include pumpkin seeds include:

Red meat

If you and your family are meat lovers, then good news – red meat should well and truly be on the menu for your growing kids. Good quality, grass fed beef provides a number of key nutrients for developing brains, including a good source of protein, some healthy fats (more are found in the higher quality, grass-fed meats), and micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and iron. Iron, in particular, is an essential mineral needed for brain growth and the development of neurotransmitter communication systems, and growing kids are at risk for deficiency. Some of these micronutrients, particularly vitamin B12, are difficult to obtain from non-meat foods, so including a little bit of red meat in the diet each week ensures that your kids’ bodies have easy access to them when it needs them.

Extra support

These are some of the best foods you can feed your kids at any time during their growth years, but it is by no means an exhaustive list – there are lots of nutritious options available that provide the essential nutrients discussed above. Sometimes figuring out the best eating approach for your individual child or children can be difficult and a little bit of extra support is needed. In this case, you can always reach out for some advice from one of our naturopaths, who can help you to develop a specialised eating plan to meet the dietary, nutritional, and food preference needs of your kids and whole family.

Reference & further reading

Cusick, S. E., & Georgieff, M. K. (2016). The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development: The Golden Opportunity of the “First 1000 Days.” The Journal of Pediatrics, 175, 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.05.013

Goyal, M. S., Venkatesh, S., Milbrandt, J., Gordon, J. I., & Raichle, M. E. (2015). Feeding the brain and nurturing the mind: Linking nutrition and the gut microbiota to brain development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(46), 14105–14112. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511465112

Sampson, T. R., & Mazmanian, S. K. (2015). Control of Brain Development, Function, and Behavior by the Microbiome. Cell Host & Microbe, 17(5), 565–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chom.2015.04.011

Stiles, J., & Jernigan, T. L. (2010). The Basics of Brain Development. Neuropsychology Review, 20(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4

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