The Brain: One Hungry Organ
A baby's brain grows fastest during the first two years of life. Even though it reaches adult size by the age of 2, the brain continues to create new nerve connections all the way up until adolescence. During this period, it’s essential to assure that your child has all the nutrients they need to help make up the basic building blocks of the brain and the entire nervous system.
To put it simply, a healthy diet plays a crucial role in a child's brain development.There are a number of essential foods that can be incorporated into your children’s diet in order to benefit brain development … and while you’re at it, why not integrate them into your lifestyle as well?
** Note: If your child has a small appetite, many of the foods listed below can easily be served as snacks in order to satisfy all of their nutritional needs.
Did you know that the brain contains more fat than any other organ? Fats are absolutely essential in order for it to function properly. One of the more important fats for the brain is omega-3, a fatty acid essential for your child's growth – in particular, their brain development. A deficiency in omega-3 fats, from which brain cells are constituted, can interrupt communication among neurons.
In addition, these fatty acids strengthen the immune system and prevent many diseases, especially ones children are prone to, like the flu, colds, ear infections, etc. Since the body cannot manufacture omega-3 itself, it has to be absorbed nutritionally, so it's absolutely necessary to make sure it’s included in your child’s diet.
The curious brain-like shape of the walnut gives it away as a fantastic nutritional source to help nourish children’s brains. Among all nuts, it is the richest in omega-3, containing about 2.69 grams per 30 grams of walnuts. The humble walnut is also a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps eliminate free radicals that, when present in excess, may destroy neurons and other cells in the body. Along with a handful of dark chocolate or dried fruit, this crisp and delicious nut makes a perfect snack for children.
Bonus benefits: According to a study conducted by Professor Russel J. Reiter, walnuts contain melatonin, an antioxidant molecule and natural hormone that promotes sleep. While his study does not establish the possible sedative effects of walnuts, walnuts could make a great evening snack for any child who has trouble getting to sleep!
Chia is rich in omega-3 and antioxidants, making it a super ally for the brain. It also contains fibre and a good amount of protein and carbohydrates, which fuelled the Aztec warriors in Mexico, where it was originally cultivated.
So if you want to make sure your little warriors have lots of energy and the fuel for optimal mental development, feed them chia seeds! Chia seeds can be consumed in a variety of ways. Who would’ve thought a chia-chocolate pudding could be such a fantastic nutritional source?
Chia seeds are also great incorporated into smoothies (if you don’t tell your kids, we promise not to either!).
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel of the human body and about half of what we consume from them goes towards fuelling the brain. Thus, a child needs carbohydrates not only to have energy all day, but also to focus, think, and create.
Dried mangoes, apples, or blueberries are a quick and healthy source of glucose, a type of sugar that is quick to respond to any drop in energy level. They are also a good source of vitamins A, C, and E, all of which are excellent antioxidants.
This cereal, besides being a good source of complex carbohydrates (those that are absorbed more gradually by the body) is rich in vitamin B, especially B1, which is useful in helping the brain to benefit from glucose.
Cooked oatmeal is a great example of a satiating and nutritious breakfast for your child. Did you know that you can prepare it without cooking, in order to let the oats retain the maximum amount of nutrients? Simply let the oats soak in milk overnight and they’ll be ready to enjoy by morning.
Lentils (yellow, orange, red, green, and brown) are very rich in vitamin B9, also known as folic acid. The brain requires this vitamin to synthesize serotonin and dopamine. High levels of these hormones in the brain promotes better moods in children, which can boost intellectual performance.
Not every child will take immediately to the taste and texture of lentils, but when mixed into mashed potatoes or casseroles, lentils can pass almost unnoticed by even the finickiest of children!
Antioxidants help to counter some of the effects of damaged cells, including damaged brain cells. They can be found in a number of fruits and vegetables, especially more colourful examples like tomatoes, red and orange peppers, carrots, citrus fruit, and all berries, including blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Green leafy vegetables like kale, arugula, and Swiss chard are also excellent sources of antioxidants.
To make sure your child gets enough fruits and vegetables without complaining about what’s on their plate, vary the presentation: serve fruits and vegetables in puree form, in smoothies, or as a snack with hummus or nuts. In no time, you’ll find it easier to make sure your child gets the daily recommendation of 4 to 6 servings of fruits and vegetables (note: serving sizes may vary depending on the age of the child).
Since different food groups often work better in tandem (as in the example of how omega-3 fatty acids work with B-vitamins to benefit the brain) a varied and balanced diet is a sure-fire way to make sure you’re doing all you can to contribute to your child’s growth and development. Why not also choose organic foods in order to limit exposure to pesticides and to provide more nutrients to the body and maintain optimal health?
With these tidbits of nutritional knowledge, you have all you need to feed the roughly one hundred thousand billion cells that multiply and develop in the brains of your children as they grow. Now that’s feeding your mind in more ways than one!
** Physical exercise is also essential for brain development and stimulates the ability to learn, so be active as a family!