January 11, 2023

Brain Foods For Your Baby: Essential Nutrition for Early Brain Development

Brain Foods For Your Baby: Essential Nutrition for Early Brain Development

Written by:  Dr. Jason Culp, ND CNS

Healthy Eating:  Earlier is better!

The first 1,000 days are your child's most consequential moments of brain growth and development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a healthy diet during pregnancy and the first two years of feeding influences a child's brain health and may even decrease the risk of specific cognitive issues later in life.

In the womb and after birth, your baby is exposed to constant stimuli in their environment that trigger rapid growth and restructuring in the brain. As your child is exposed to and interacts with their new world, numerous nerve connections and networks are formed. These processes mainly depend on essential nutrients from a healthy diet as core brain function elements develop, such as cognitive skills, attention, emotional behaviors, and memory. 

In fact, the AAP attributes "lifelong deficits in brain function" to diets that fail to provide key nutrients during this peak growth period. Cognitive deficits can lead to a lifetime of struggles, including poor academic ability, attention and behavioral issues, and lower IQ scores. So it's not an exaggeration to say that optimal nutrition early on can shape an entire lifetime of health and success!

As a parent, it’s never too early to give the best nutrition for your child, so they can reach their fullest potential during childhood and when they grow up. And although all nutrients are needed to support health, you can help ensure healthy brain development by emphasizing these nutrients in their diet.

Baby Brain Nutrients for Early Development

Protein plays an essential role in brain development, forming nerve cells and chemical messengers used to communicate between brain cells, known as neurotransmitters. 

  • With the introduction of solid foods, good sources of protein can be found in meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, pulses like beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
  • Most foods contain protein, but the type and quantity of amino acids will vary depending on the source. Children being fed a plant-based diet will need a variety of plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, to provide the 9 essential amino acids required for healthy growth and development. (read more about plant-based eating for your baby here - https://taleii.com/blogs/baby/is-plant-based-eating-right-for-your-baby

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for nerves' healthy growth and function. In particular, DHA – an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, oils, and sea vegetables – is vital to making, structuring, and connecting nerves in the brain. Some studies have linked DHA levels and IQ scores, but more research is needed. 

  • Fish and fish oils contain essential fats, but you can also find them in walnuts, flax and chia seeds, avocado's, eggs, and leafy vegetables.

Vitamins A, D, B6, Folate, B12, and Choline, are essential to forming new nerves.

  • B vitamins and Vit A are found in meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, colorful vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots, whole grains, and leafy greens.
  • Vitamin D comes from time in the sun and food, including fortified non-dairy milk.
  • Choline seems most important for good memory. Good sources include egg yolks, meat, dairy products, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Minerals Zinc, Iron, and Iodine are vital to the brain's structure, function, and vast network of nerves.

  • Zinc is needed for growth, and studies have shown that zinc deficiency during early brain development can impair memory, attention, and behavioral issues.

Zinc can be found in meats, poultry, seafood, dairy products (yogurt), eggs, whole grains, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), chickpeas, and lentils.

  • Iodine deficiency in childhood can cause impaired cognitive and motor development and is a leading cause of preventable brain damage worldwide.

Dairy products, eggs, seaweed, enriched grains, fish and seafood, and iodized table salt are good sources of iodine.

  • Iron plays a critical role in producing energy, nerve growth, and making chemical messengers that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Unfortunately, iron deficiency is common in children and, during the first 1,000 days, can lead to lifelong, irreversible deficits in cognition, behavior, and motor skills. (read more about iron and your baby - https://taleii.com/blogs/baby/iron-is-your-baby-getting-enough).

Iron from animal sources such as red meats, fish, and poultry is easier to absorb. Iron from plant foods (called "non-heme") is less absorbed. However, both forms of iron contribute significantly to iron levels in the body. 

Good sources of non-heme iron include whole grains, quinoa, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, leafy greens (kale) and root vegetables (especially beetroot), tofu, dried apricots, and fortified cereals.

Takeaway Points:
Nutrition is essential during early life for the healthy growth and development of your child's brain. Your diet during pregnancy and the foods you feed your child for the first two years of life will have a lifelong impact on cognitive health and function.

Essential brain nutrients can be found in various foods. Several brain 'superfoods,' such as eggs, yogurt, or leafy greens, provide multiple nutrients, so feed your baby a diverse diet with brain-building foods.

Unfortunately, environmental toxins, such as heavy metals, plastics, and other pollutants that make their way into the food chain, can interfere with nerve and brain development. Therefore, it's always an excellent choice to opt for organic and local food sources.