“Today in the United States, one is six children suffers from a disability that affects their behavior, memory, or ability to learn. We spend more than $80 billion each year to treat neurodevelopmental disorders. Diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) alone are up by 250% since 1990.”
As a parent, this information is extremely alarming and I am a firm believer that nutrition plays a huge role in these facts and figures. The way that a child’s brain is built depends on what they are fed when they are rapidly growing (during their first years). This means that growing children literally are what they eat!
Nutrition has actually been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and during infancy, and it continues to be vital throughout the first years of life. Cognitive development is a term which includes areas such as human perception, thinking and learning. Nutrition, is among the major factors that affect cognitive development. Because there is more than one factor that influences learning, scientists cannot say that eating this or that specific thing will make anyone smarter, however the role of good nutrition in child development and learning is crucial!
Consuming a proper balance of nutrients during this early period of life is critical for normal brain development. When there is a shortage of nutrients like iron and iodine, this can impair cognitive and motor development and is often irreversible. There is also growing evidence that DHA (an essential fatty acid) is a major element necessary for the complete production of synapses, which makes the first years of life a critical period of learning and development. There are many other nutrients that have been linked specifically to early brain functioning such as choline, folic acid, and zinc. Nutrient deficiencies also affect the complex chemical processes of the brain and can lead to less efficient communication between brain cells.
A healthy brain is composed of about 60% structural fat, and as the brain grows, it selects building blocks from among the fatty acids that are available in what the child eats. The most common structural fat in the brain is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega 3-fatty acid. DHA is also important for the structure of the retina of the eye. There are numerous studies that have suggested that low DHA levels are associated with problems with intelligence, vision, and behavior.
Another essential nutrient for optimal brain function is iron. There was a study in the December 2004 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that was the first to report a connection between children’s iron levels and ADHD. The study showed that the average iron level in non ADHD kids was normal, while the average level in children with ADHD was about half that of the others, with lower iron levels showing worse ADHD symptoms, worse hyperactivity, worse oppositional behavior, and worse cognitive scores. The most alarming part of this study was that none of the children had iron levels that were low enough to indicate anemia, so they all tested “normal” on the blood tests that doctors use to screen for iron problems! When some researchers fed appropriate iron to children with ADHD, their test scores and symptoms improved!
Antioxidants have been linked to improved memory and brain function and are found in a large variety of whole foods.
Now let us take a moment to talk about organophosphates. These are the substances that are most commonly used as insecticides in conventional and chemical agriculture. They actually act as nerve agents and have been linked to neurodevelopmental problems!
This is where organically grown food comes in to save the day! Organically grown foods are produced without using these toxic pesticides, so choosing to buy organic food for your children can immediately and significantly decrease their exposure to these pesticides so you will be protecting their developing brains! On average, organic foods are also about 30% higher in antioxidants than non-organic foods so each serving is is more nutritionally dense!
This doesn’t mean that we have to feed our children unappetizing food. Their diet does need to be balanced with delicious whole foods, grown in a nutrition enhancing way, without toxins or pesticides, and repared in a way that also preserves nutrients. This is much easier than it sounds, especially when getting in the habit of doing it, because then it just becomes second nature! There are plenty of cookbooks and simple recipes that can make eating fun and healthy for both the parent to prepare and the child to eat!
Limit their intake of processed foods with artificial colors and preservatives, this will make a huge difference in the way they develop. Make sure they eat breakfast, it is ESSENTIAL! Buy organic, whenever possible, as studies have shown this has made a HUGE difference in their toxic load. Focus on organic fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and humanely raised meat and poultry to meet optimal nutritional needs and to help their brains operate at their very best.
A parent’s role in proper nutrition is important because our children depend on us to eat, so it is up to you to provide them with adequate nutrition. Think of their brains as an engine, and if we want them to do their best in school, we need to provide them with clean, high quality fuel! When a child begins to form likes and dislikes, accept their preferences, but continue to introduce them to small amounts of new and healthy foods. These are the years in which they form their eating habits for the rest of their lives, so let’s make them good habits! Be a good role model for healthy eating and use this as motivation to cook healthy meals for the whole family as well! Let’s feed our children food that will nourish their brain, and provide them with a foundation that will help them succeed in school and in life!