Author: Sandhya Basu
The human brain is a fascinating part of our body. Metaphorically speaking, our brain is like a plant. We need to nurture it with positivity and the right food, which will help our brain cells grow; pretty much how a plant needs sunlight and the bio-ingredients for it to blossom into flowers and fruits.
Since conception, the human brain goes through astonishing structural and functional changes. These changes include the development of various parts of the brain like the cortical neurons (responsible for our movement and sight), and synaptic connections (connecting different parts of the brain), myelination (an insulating layer that forms on the spinal cord and around the nerves) and formation of brain areas like the auditory and visual cortices (used to see and hear the world around us), hippocampus (responsible for holding memories), and thalamus (responsible for sensations). Though the process of this formation is a miracle of nature, however, there are still external factors that affect this development. In this article, we will explore how nutrition impacts brain development.
Growing up in the late 1990s, I clearly remember my parent’s strong emphasis on my eating patterns. Initially, I did not understand this focused attention but now, having read and understood the importance of food in the development of a child, especially the brain, I have realized their underlying intentions. However, not all children get the prerequisite diet they need for their development. Globally, 22.2% of children are affected by malnutrition. Research has shown severe differences in the brains of children affected by it. For instance, in areas like the sub-Saharan region in Africa, children’s brains are not growing properly in terms of weight and size, as compared to other Western countries. Improper intake of nutrients results in various behavioral and cognitive gaps, like delays in language and motor (movement) development, decreased IQ levels, etc.
How do we make sure that our children get the best nutrition? Almost all nutrients are essential for the development of the brain. However, certain nutrients have specific roles to play on the developing networks of the brain circuits:
- Proteins: responsible for cell proliferation
- Iron: essential for myelination, production of neurotransmitters, and energy
- Zinc: for DNA synthesis and the release of neurotransmitters
- Copper: neurotransmitter synthesis and acts as an antioxidant
- Choline: important for brain function and memory
Though the mother’s intake of nutrients is important for the development of the child’s brain during the pregnancy period, the type of food the child eats after birth is also equally important. Breast milk offers the most vital nutrients to the brain’s development. Upon completion of the child’s one year, iron becomes a necessary nutrient as it serves as a fuel towards the brain’s growth. It does so by maintaining a balance in the number of red blood cells in the body. Studies show that the deficiency in iron intake is linked to cognitive deficits in children of tender ages.
Additionally, because of the increased pace of the formation of brain cells in the early years of a child’s life, the inclusion of fat for their diets is also necessary. Ideally, the babies should receive this fat from breast milk or edible powder in the first year of their lives. This can slowly proceed to the intake of cow’s milk, an excellent supplement of both fat and protein. Once the child enters the third year, the nutrient supply should come from a balanced meal which may include rice, wheat, pulses, etc.
Here is a list of the top eight food items to make way for your child’s growth.
Table 1: Food items determining children’s development
|Food||Nutrients it carries||Importance in Growth|
|Eggs||Protein and choline
|Promotes concentration and improves neurological functions like memory.|
|Yogurt||Protein and fats||Essential for brain development and promotes communication between the brain cells.|
|Leafy Vegetables or Greens||Vitamin-K, Vitamin -A, Vitamin-C, anti-oxidants, and folate||Promotes the development of new brain cells and improves cognitive functioning. Protects the body from continuous stress.|
|Fish||Vitamin-D and Omega-3||Protects from memory loss.|
|Wholegrains, including oats||Carbohydrates and fibers||It maintains a constant supply of glucose to the brain for energy.|
|Nuts and Seeds||Proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals||Promotes cognitive development in children, also known as brain boosters|
|Dairy Products||Calcium||Promotes the electrical signaling system in the brain|
|Apples and Plums||Quercetin (antioxidant)||Promotes mental skills|
Unfortunately, in today’s time, the majority of our dietary plans include foods that are processed, pre-made, boxed, and contain excess amounts of processed sugar. Such foods contain polyunsaturated fats that may cause inflammation in brain tissues, resulting in damaged brain cells. Examples of such kinds of food include sunflower and corn oils that are used in food products like french fries and other fried products. Additionally, one also needs to monitor a child’s sugar intake as consuming it in excess amounts causes insulin resistance, which affects the level of glucose in the blood. Increased levels of glucose may be damaging to the developing brain of young children.
In some cases, children’s disinterest in eating healthy becomes an issue. They start equating healthy diets with distasteful or taste-less food and end up eating a lot of junk food like chips, soft drinks, etc. They may also not eat properly during their meal-times. In this case, we need to make sure that the right nutrients are served with tasty and attractive recipes. For example, dairy products like milk can be served with chocolate powder and flavored biscuits to enhance its taste, or a smoothie bowl can be prepared using yogurt, fruits, and oats to satisfy the need for tasty as well as healthy food. Moreover, we may also tell them about the importance of food and why we should not waste it. This will not only make them respect what they eat but will also help in building empathy for others.
To summarize, we explored the importance of certain nutrients in the development of children’s brains. We also glanced upon ways to prepare healthy, yet tasty recipes for children. Proper food is not only essential for physical growth but also for mental development. With this context, let us reflect on saying by the Buddha: “To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
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