From being in the womb to the first 2 years of life, nutrition is essential to healthy brain development. Experts say that beyond the age of 3 the effects of chronic malnutrition are irreversible[i], so we have to get the diet right early on to ensure the best brain development opportunity.
Good dietary habits that support brain development starts in the womb. Not only does the mother’s nutrition during pregnancy directly impact the developing baby’s brain, but studies have shown that what the mother eats has a direct effect on food preferences after childbirth. So, having lots of sugar while pregnant could lead to the child having sugar cravings, and a high-fat diet could lead to a preference for junk food.[ii]
Pregnant women should gain about 20% of their ideal body weight to ensure foetal growth. This means an extra 300 calories per day, including 10-12 extra grams of protein. Take prenatal vitamins including the all-important Omegas, and make sure your iron levels are good. Research indicates that around 1 in 6 women of childbearing age are iron deficient.[iii]
After birth – diet is critical to healthy brain development. Breastfeeding is best, offering the right mix of nutrients for promoting brain growth. But breastfed infants still need some form of iron supplementation, beginning around six months of age. Iron deficiency has been clearly linked to cognitive deficits in young children and is critical for maintaining oxygen-carrying red blood cells that fuel brain growth. Bottle-fed babies should receive a formula that contains iron. From 6 months when solids are introduced, look out for iron-fortified cereals.
Many nutrients are needed for normal, healthy brain development, including protein and fat, and micronutrients such as the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, choline, iron and zinc.
Proteins are the building blocks of any growth process, especially the brain, where protein is a component of neurons (nerve cells) and neurotransmitters which transmit messages between neurons and helps build the structure and size of the brain.
More than half of the brain is made up of fat. Fat is essential in the diet of young children for neurological development and brain function. Inadequate fat in the diet can lead to poor growth and cognitive outcomes. Docosahexaenoic acid, or what’s more commonly referred to as DHA is a long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acid and a prominent omega-3 fat in the brain. DHA is necessary for the creation, movement, organization and connection of the brain’s neurons. Seafood, including fatty fish like salmon, is the best source for DHA.
Choline, which can be found in egg yolks as well as meat and nuts like pistachios and almonds are involved in brain cell structure, neurotransmission and memory processing and storage. It helps prevent neural tube defects, or birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, like spina bifida.
Iron is essential for the process of myelination where the neurons are coated with a fatty sheath called myelin. It’s also part of the neurotransmitters that send information throughout the brain. There are many food sources of iron. The nutrient can be found in animal products, such as beef or chicken liver, beef, poultry and fish. Plant sources include beans, enriched breakfast cereal, tofu and spinach, and should be eaten with a vitamin C food like tomatoes or citrus fruits to enhance the iron’s absorption in the body.
Zinc is involved in all the main functions of the brain. A zinc deficiency in early childhood has been tied to poor learning, attention, memory and mood. Meat, shellfish, beans, nuts and whole grains are good sources of zinc.
So all the basics of nutrition apply, choose wholesome, nutritious foods. Target meats, fish, beans, nutrient-rich grains, plant-based fats, eggs, nuts and nut butter and plenty of fruits and vegetables to anchor the diet. Take note of the nutrients we have described in this article and seek out supplements that ensure the right balance of these.