We are pleased to bring you a weekly series of blog posts and an opportunity to learn from educator and linguistic scientist, Helen Doron. Helen has been teaching English to children for 30 years. She is the founder and CEO of the Helen Doron Educational Group and created a unique methodology for teaching English, maths, fitness, and infant development with original and revolutionary learning materials.
This week’s question: How does nutrition affect brain development and learning?
Helen responds: Obvious, No? To state that balanced nutrition is essential for proper child development seems obvious enough in itself, yet worldwide, parents are not caring enough for their child’s IQ, EQ and motor development simply by not providing the correct nutrition to their children – even though they can afford to. Paradoxically, many children in developed countries are undernourished because of a lack of correct nutrition due to a diet based on fast foods, high in sugar, salt and bad fats.
A nutrient-rich diet is essential for children to develop optimal brain function. A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health followed the dietary patterns of nearly 4,000 children from birth for over eight years. The study found that toddlers who ate a nutrient-rich diet full of fruits and vegetables had higher IQ scores when they reached 8 years of age compared to the toddlers who consumed processed foods full of fat and sugar. The foods that the toddlers ate had a dramatic long term effect on their brain function.
Nutrition plays an important role in brain development during all stages of childhood. Whereas the brain grows fastest in the first few years of life, it continues to develop throughout adolescence. So it is important that children of all ages consume a high nutrient diet to ensure adequate brain development.
Beginning with Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding mothers who themselves eat a high nutrient diet pass on those nutrients to their children, improving their children’s cognitive development and overall health. In fact mothers who take care of their own nutrition, fitness and wellbeing during pregnancy are already giving their unborn children a head start in life.
Children who are breastfed for at least six months have higher IQ scores than children who are raised on formula. A greater proportion of an infant’s diet made up of breast milk also correlates to greater brain volume in adolescence. This is due in part to the DHA content of breast milk, since DHA is a major component of brain cell membranes. Breast milk is not only an important source of DHA, but it provides many other essential nutrients for the developing brain, as well as promoting the health of the immune and respiratory systems and supporting overall childhood health. Upon the introduction of solid foods, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with higher IQ and better memory skills when children reach 4 years of age. In school-age children, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as increased cholesterol intake have been linked to diminished intelligence and poor academic performance.
Eat the Rainbow
As a rule of thumb we can use the “five to nine” guide of fruits and vegetables consumed each day. This means children should be eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. If you fill half of your child’s dinner plate with vegetables for instance, this will help them consume the correct amount. Use fruits as snacks instead of sweets or cookies. This will prevent insulin resistance Children may prefer fruits to vegetables because of the fructose sugar they contain but don’t give up on the veggies. The more the better and the more colours you include the better as each food colour provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Antioxidants for Brain Power
Children who eat a nutrient-dense diet are providing their brains with supplementary antioxidant support. The brain uses the most oxygen and produces most energy of any part of body, and thus it is highly susceptible to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is inflammation caused by uncontrolled free radicals. Free radicals can propagate throughout the cell, damaging the cell and even lead to cell death.
Cells have their own antioxidant defence enzymes to process the free radicals, but they are not 100% efficient and we must use dietary antioxidants to process the rest. The brain’s antioxidant defences becoming overwhelmed is one of the main mechanisms of brain aging, and this has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. A healthy, antioxidant rich diet is especially beneficial for the brain and is likely involved in the association between plant food consumption and higher IQ scores.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids – The “Good” Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that your body requires from the food you eat. These fats are found in a number of nuts, seeds and vegetables. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain; this indicates that they are important for healthy cognitive and memory function as well as behaviour. These fats are also essential for brain development, growth and function. It is important for pregnant women to get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids through the diet for healthy nerve and vision development in the baby.
Why is Refined Sugar a no-no?
Eating excess refined sugar can lead to insulin resistance. This means that the body is not able to efficiently use the hormone insulin to transport sugar or glucose from the blood to the tissues where it can be converted into energy. Insulin resistance can lead to damaged brain cells. This occurs because the brain requires high amounts of glucose to function and becomes deprived of nutrients if the body cannot use insulin properly. Eating more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit rather than sugary or starchy processed foods can help balance blood sugar levels for healthier brain development and function. Processed snack foods are marketed heavily to children and creative presentation and display of fruits and vegetables will enhance kid’s enjoyment of nature’s treats.
Feeding the Brain for Life
Nutrition and hydration make a difference; they are part of a foundation for healthy learning. Our children need all the building blocks of good nutrition: protein, carbohydrates and fats. Helping our children make healthier choices is an essential part of their education and well-being; they will be more attentive, and able to enjoy learning. Healthy foods will fuel the brain and simple carbohydrates and refined foods will cause sugar highs, a lack of focus and concentration.
Be a Role Model
Your children look to you as their role models. It is no use scolding them for not eating their greens if you yourself live off junk food. Get them involved in making meals with you. The physical sense is just as important as taste when it comes to toddlers – for them a food may not only taste good but feel good as well. Introduce new foods gradually and try not to be too rigid, this will only add stress to meal time where you really want them to have a positive experience.
Remember the choices you make regarding your own diet have a direct effect on your children who look to you for guidance. On the other hand trying them to force them to eat certain foods because they are “good for them” will only cause resentment and achieve the opposite result. Make meal times a fun time; it make take a little longer than microwaving a pizza or popping down to the local burger joint but in the long run, taking care of what your eat maybe the most important thing you can do for your children.