Adequate nutrition is necessary to optimize brain function and research shows many nutrients exert neuroprotective effects and can improve intellectual performance. The brains of our youngsters need to be well-nourished so that each child has the best chance possible to live their healthiest life. Overall, research advises that healthy, regular dietary habits are the best way to ensure optimal cognitive and behavioural performance at all times (3).
During the first few years of a child’s life, rapid brain growth occurs. In fact, a child’s brain reaches 80% of its adult weight by the time they turn 2 years of age (2).
A child’s brain development continues throughout the adolescent years, specifically in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the region of the brain that is also called the “personality centre” because it is associated with memory, planning, decision making, and other executive functions (3).
Top tips to help kids’ cognition:
Nutrition studies suggest a direct correlation between eating breakfast and academic success. One study that was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, demonstrated that children who ate breakfast regularly displayed higher scores in both reading and math. They also had lower levels of anxiety, hyperactivity and behaviour problems and improvements to attention span and school attendance (7).
• Make sure children eat regular meals and snacks: be sure children do not skip meals and have regular healthy snacks such as dried fruit and nuts/seeds (seeds can be a great alternative if a child has tree nut allergies) or cut up raw vegetables with houmous. Limit sweets and fast food as eating these foods can often cause inflammation in parts of the brain. Australian researchers recently demonstrated that as little as five days on a diet that is high in cakes, biscuits and sugary drinks caused increased levels of inflammation in the hippocampus,the part of the brain that is important to learning and memory. Children (and adults) who consume high levels of junk food appear to simply not perform as well as those who have healthy diets in simple memory tests (8).
• Include healthy fats, especially omega 3: these are essential for brain growth and function. Walnuts, chia, flaxseed, spinach, tofu, avocado and edamame are great sources of omega 3 snacks (again just be mindful of others who may have tree nut allergies).
• Wholegrain cereals, lentils, and legumes (such as beans and peas) provide a steady supply of glucose (the brain’s preferred fuel), B vitamins (energy) and fibre (digestive health), which will help to keep kids full between meals and the brain more alert.
• Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables every day: the bright colours of these foods (e.g. purple grapes, red apples, yellow bananas, blue berries, orange citrus) indicate they are packed with various phytonutrients, vitamins and antioxidants that keep growing cells healthy and protected. Encourage children to eat at least 5 different colours a day.
• Iron and zinc rich foods will assist in improving focus and memory. Iron-rich plant foods such as legumes, lentils, spinach, oats, dried fruit, beetroot, broccoli, and pumpkin seeds eaten alongside vitamin C containing fruit and vegetables will help enhance iron absorption.
• Drinking sufficient water is crucial for hydration and to ensure that kids brains are alert and focused. (Recommended intake: 5 to 8 years old: 5 glasses (1 litre), 9 to 12 years old: 7 glasses (1.5 litres) 13 years old and over: 8 to 10 glasses (2 litres).
Some special brain foods we love for kids:
2. Curry Leaves: are highly antioxidant. Research shows that curry leaves contain an array of antioxidant compounds, including linalool, alpha-terpinene, myrcene, mahanimbine, caryophyllene, murrayanol, and alpha-pinene. Antioxidants play an essential role in keeping the brain and body healthy and disease free.
One study showed that high levels of curry leaf consumption improved levels of brain-protecting antioxidants (glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, and superoxide dismutase), in brain cells (6). Curry leaves are also a rich source of vitamin A which is beneficial for good vision and eye health (5).
3. Beetroot: finding ways to integrate beetroot into a child’s diet (a recommended way is in smoothies) can be hugely beneficial. Beetroot contains nitrates that increase blood flow to the brain, which enhances oxygenation and improvesmental performance. Beetroot is also loaded with iron which is a mineral needed for the body to produce new blood cells and carry oxygen to various parts of the body. Overall, studies indicate that beetroot offers powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and vascular-protective effects on the brain.
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