Why Your Kids Need Brain Food

I have heard you talk a lot about the importance of experience in brain development but as a certified nutrition I think it is important to talk about food too. Thoughts?

Kathy, Nebraska

Kathy, 

We all know now that nutritious food builds strong bodies. But as you note in your question, they build strong brains too!

Our brains take up only 2% of our body weight yet consume nearly 20% of our body's energy. That's why what we feed our brains is so important. Eating "brain food" improves kids' moods, elevates learning and concentration, and sharpens memory and attention. 

The foods we feed our kids impact their brains in three ways:

  • The brain's cellular structure
  • The wiring of neural circuits
  • Production of myelin

Glucose (sugar!)

Glucose (sugar) is the brain's fuel. If your child's brain doesn't have a steady supply of glucose, her energy and attention will drop. Most teachers can tell instantly which of their students haven't had breakfast for this very reason.

Not all sugars are created equal. Refined and simple sugars (the kind that are in donuts, cookies, candy etc..) give the brain a quick sugar jolt - a quick spike in energy that is generally followed by a big drop. Children's brains need to be powerful throughout the day, not just after a trip to the vending machine.

The bottom line: Choose complex carbohydrates like whole grains, nuts, fruits and veggies to ensure your child's brain has a steady supply of glucose all day long.

Proteins

Kids' brains need proteins to build new neural connections. The body breaks down proteins into its building blocks: amino acids. The brain then uses these to create new neural pathways. Kids brains are growing like crazy and need extra protein to build healthy connections.

The bottom line: Choose eggs, meat, fish and dairy products along with plant sources of protein like beans, legumes, and soy to give your child's brain the protein kick it needs.

Fats

Low fat, high fat, no fat, reduced fat. What's up with fats? Many of us in the U.S. have an antagonistic relationship with fats to say the least. 

The brain is one place where (the good kind of) fats can be decidedly celebrated. In fact, over 60% of the brain is composed of fat. Every brain cell has an outer membrane (myelin) composed of fatty acids. Healthy fats make those membranes pliable and so that neurons are better able to "communicate" with one another.

Similar to sugars, not all fats are created equal. Saturated and trans fats (mostly in processed foods, sweets etc..) will actually stiffen the membranes and make it more difficult for the cells to function well. The brain does best when we feed it good fats.

Luckily for babies, breast milk is the best source of these good fats! That's why the AAP advises new moms to breastfeed their babies for at least six months when possible. 

The bottom line: Choose brain healthy fats like fish, avocados, seeds, nuts, and dairy products for your kids. 

Rounding out our kids plates

In addition to sugars, proteins and fats we need to make sure that kids get the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants their brains need to thrive. A long list of vitamins and minerals are essential for memory, cell production, myelination, and getting enough oxygen to the brain.

Luckily a child who eats a lot of brain food in a well balanced and diverse diet is likely to get the vitamins and minerals he or she needs. Talk to your pediatrician if you have more questions about multivitamins.

The bottom line: Round out your kids' diets with a 'rainbow' of foods like berries, vegetables including healthy portions of the green leafy variety, nuts, oils, and fish.

Brain toxic diets

Unfortunately, the mainstream U.S. diet is brain toxic - chalk full of sugary, fatty foods that don't do much for our brains. There is almost no good brain food in many favorites like french fries, chicken nuggets, and mac n' cheese. Lots of kids foods are laced with simple sugars, disguised with names like saccharose to dextrin.

It isn't just about individual choice or habits either, too many families and kids live in communities where it isn't easy to find (or afford) fresh fruits and vegetables. This isn't fair to these kids bodies or their brains.

So what should I feed my kids?

Some parents are really excited to learn about how different foods help or hinder brain function. Other parents just want to know what to put on their grocery list or what to include on the school board agenda for school lunches. 

Here are some parent tips to get your list started.

Eat brain foods to think better and feel better. Bon appetit! 

Dr. Dave and Erin Walsh