The Importance of Food and Nutrition for Kid’s Behaviour and Brain Development -(and how to cope with the fussy eater to ensure nutrient levels support behaviour and development):

Children’s brains develop rapidly and providing the right nutrient intake to maximize their growth is vital. The emotional and physical health, social skills and cognitive capacity that emerge in the early years of life are all important for later success; healthy food and adequate nutrition are the keys to building a sturdy foundation for all of the learning, health and behaviour to follow.

As your child reaches three years of age, the ‘brain growth spurt’ period ends. This means that your child’s critical brain structure is now about 90% developed. For children three years plus, the focus becomes about brain functioning capacity: nutrients such as Choline, Iron, Vitamin D, Lutein, Magnesium and Iodine are essential through this period to balance behaviour, build synaptic connections, and develop pathways for memory consolidation and visual learning.

It is so important to remember at this stage that a healthy child is not only physically fit, but also mentally well, and pre-school and primary school years are a period of extremely rapid brain development. Furthermore, a five year-old brain uses twice the glucose (fuel for the brain) as that of a fully-grown adult! Nutrition needs are heightened in childhood development, and a focus in specific nutrients is essential to supporting cognitive development during this period of intense growth.

Let’s discuss the key nutrients for kid’s brain development:

1. Choline:

Choline is a nutrient that supports mental functioning of the brain and plays a significant role in the development of learning and memory centres. Commonly known as the ‘memory vitamin’, research shows that exposure to choline during early development can increase the working memory capacity of your child’s brain.

As a precursor to several neurotransmitters that allow for peak cognitive processing, choline is also essential for maintenance of structural integrity of membranes and modulation of acetylcholine transmission – this means that without adequate levels of choline, the brain is unable to function properly, which can lead to an inability to focus, memorize or recall learned information. Low levels of choline during early life have also been shown to alter memory functions in adulthood and may contribute to the etiology of stress-related disorders and age-related memory decline in later life. Choline is essential for both childhood and adult-wellbeing.

Choline is found in high amounts in eggs, meat, poultry and fish – for this reason vegetarians and vegans are at high risk for choline deficiency, as are fussy eaters. Luckily, it has never been easier to supplement with kid-friendly chewables, so protect and boost your kid’s memory and learning potential with choline!

2. Iron:

A critical mineral for cognitive and physical growth, research has shown that iron deficiency in children is associated with significant problems like reduced attention span, sensory issues and emotional and behavioural regulation issues. Studies also show that children with ADHD have much lower iron levels than children without the diagnosis, making it an important nutrient for behavioural therapy.

Iron is necessary for the development and function of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for reward and motivation, happy mood, and alertness and focus respectively; and all are important brain chemicals that govern performance and behaviour.
There are two types of iron available from foods: heme iron, and non-heme iron. Heme iron is most easily absorbed by the body, and is found in meat, poultry, seafood and fish. Non-heme iron is plant-based and found to a lesser extent in grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds. If your child is a vegan or vegetarian it will be harder for their body

3. Vitamin D:

Just under one in four Australians suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, and Vitamin D deficiency and nutritional rickets are re-emerging as common pediatric health issues according to the S.A Government. In the brain, Vitamin D is important for normal brain development and function, and thus, a deficiency of this nutrient may impair cognitive abilities. Low levels of this vitamin result in low information-processing speed, which can lead to learning difficulties and behavioural issues. In fact, Vitamin D deficiency is linked to an increased risk for brain disorders like autism, multiple sclerosis and dementia.

Vitamin D is responsible for several essential brain functions. It aids cell growth and differentiation- Vitamin D helps to control when cells divide and grow in number. It is important for dopamine production and metabolism – it helps shape the dopamine pathway, necessary for motor skills and motivation. It regulates hippocampal calcium channels, important for memory and learning, and Vitamin D also protects the brain from oxidative stress.

Largely found in fatty fish like salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms, the ‘sunshine vitamin’ is also synthesized through sun exposure, although sunscreen prevents absorption. Build brain structure and protect against brain-disease with Vitamin D!

4. Lutein:

A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition found that Lutein is the predominant carotenoid in the infant brain. It showed that Lutein is concentrated in areas of the brain associated with visual processing and hearing and language development. Another study of eight and nine year old children reported in Nutritional Neuroscience found that those with higher levels of Lutein performed better on standardized academic tests than those with lower levels. If this isn’t enough, recent adult studies show a lutein-rich diet may improve problem-solving skills and verbal fluency.

Unfortunately, the best natural food sources of lutein are not the most kid-friendly. Leafy-green vegetables like kale and spinach are high in this magic nutrient, but it can be difficult to get your kids to eat the amount required to adequately support levels. Again, supplementation is an easy option here - Encourage and develop language and verbal fluency with Lutein!

5. Magnesium:

Magnesium is a wonder nutrient that protects children against stress, supports healthy sleep and relaxation, and assists focus, learning and attention. Unfortunately, one in three Aussie kids suffer from some level of deficiency, largely due to changes in farming practices, chemical fertilizers and food processing techniques (refined grains have only 16% of the magnesium of whole-grains). 90% of all children with ADHD also suffer from magnesium deficiency. This triggers symptoms like restlessness, poor focus, irritability, sleep problems and anxiety. Magnesium is also depleted by common ADHD drugs, and yet has the power to prevent or reverse ADHD drug side effects when supplemented.

The modern Western diet, high in sugar consumption, is also a cause of widespread magnesium deficiency – for every molecule of sugar ingested, it takes three molecules of magnesium to process it, so most of us will struggle to maintain adequate levels of the nutrient, and yet, magnesium is essential for a balanced brain.
Magnesium interacts with GABA receptors to support the calming action of this neurotransmitter. Magnesium also keeps glutamate- an excitatory neurotransmitter – within healthy limits. Lastly, dopamine synthesis requires adequate magnesium.

Magnesium also acts on both the pituitary and adrenal glands to balance cortisol release (keeping this hormone within a healthy range) and govern stress response. Magnesium is a must for children with anxiety and sleep issues, as it calms the nervous system reducing angst, concern and nervous tension. In the ultimate Catch-22, stress and anxiety also deplete the body of magnesium, making it an essential supplement for kids with learning or behavioural difficulties and external environmental stressors.

Magnesium also has an essential role in the production of serotonin (our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) and is also involved in muscle relaxation and energy production. Magnesium also participates in mechanisms of neural plasticity (the way the brain grows and develops) and so is important for learning and memory.

Magnesium is found in large amounts in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, although cooking processes like boiling leach out nutrients, leaving less for us to absorb. Magnesium is one nutrient that we should all supplement – ideally, take your chosen supplement 30 minutes before bed to enjoy the calming deep sleep that magnesium delivers. Support mood and relaxation with magnesium!

6. Iodine:

Required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones that regulate growth, development, metabolism and reproduction, iodine is critical for normal brain development. In fact, it is so essential that extreme developmental iodine deficiency can cause irreversible mental retardation, and mild deficiency may result in intellectual impairment. Studies show school-age children with iodine deficiency demonstrate poorer school performance, lower IQs and a higher incidence of learning disability. In fact, a meta-analysis of 18 studies concluded that iodine deficiency alone lowered mean IQ scores in children by 13.5 points – an incredibly significant finding.

The best food sources of iodine are seafood, seaweeds, iodized table salt and dairy foods (although the specific iodine content of milk varies according to the iodine content of cattle feed and the use of iodine-containing disinfectants during milking). Support intellectual performance with Iodine!

As we’ve just learned, kid’s behaviour, learning and memory is influenced by specific nutrients like Choline, Iron, Vitamin D, Lutein, Magnesium and Iodine, and nutrition is an essential part of childhood development. This knowledge is powerful, but so is a child determined not to eat the food put in front of them at mealtime…how do you combat a fussy eater to ensure mealtime bliss and optimal nutrition?

Fussy eaters can be both frustrating and disheartening for parents. Most children will go through a fussy eating phase that normally peaks at 20 months and gradually fades away between the ages of 5-8. However, while a level of ‘fussiness’ is normal as children learn to affirm their independence, chronic dogmatism can cause even the most patient parent mealtime angst.

Here are a few suggestions to calm the fussiest of eaters to ensure they maintain adequate nutrition through the vital brain development years:

Serve new foods with loved (recognized) foods:

New foods can be overwhelming to young children. Serve a small amount of the new food alongside a plate of well-known food. It may take a few attempts for your child to be adventurous enough to sample the new addition, but that’s ok – you’re increasing familiarity and with that, likelihood of sampling.

Your child will follow your example, not your advice:

Research shows that genetic predisposition is modified by experience. Mum and Dad’s attitude to food and their nutritional behaviour affects the kids. Be the example – eat together at mealtime where possible and enjoy a wide variety of foods. After all, happy, healthy parents make happy, healthy children.

Do not use food as reward or punishment:

Don’t use food to control behaviour. Putting values on specific meals or foods encourages your children to think of them in a positive or negative way. “Eat your vegetables and you can have dessert” cements dessert (and sugar) as a reward and vegetables as unpleasant. This psychology can also encourage emotional eating and interfere with a child’s natural ability to regulate appetite. As hard as it may be, try to stay neutral with all foods.

Alternatives breed alternatives:

Don’t offer children alternatives to the family meal. Children will eat when they are hungry and offering known alternatives discourages them from trying new food and encourages stubborn behaviour. With kids, repeated exposure is essential and watching the whole family eat the same dish will encourage them to join in. If they refuse to eat, end the meal. Don’t replace it with an alternative but give them the option of a healthy snack later. Remember, healthy children don’t starve themselves.

Bite your tongue:

Try not to comment on what or how much your child is eating. Provide them with a healthy portion-controlled serve and allow them to eat accordingly. Children have a natural ability to self-regulate their food intake, however this can be altered by emotional cues or demands from adults. As much as you can, bit your tongue and believe in the philosophy of ‘parents provide, children decide’.

Dip it:

Dips are a fun nutritious way to allow your child the concept of play at mealtime. If your kids won’t eat vegetables, cut them into sticks and allow them to experience with dips – hummus is a great choice as it provides a great source of protein and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Natural yoghurt and guacamole are also great choices for mealtime and can mask the taste and texture of various vegetables.

And if all else fails, use the tool of supplementation! Kid-friendly chewables are a great addition to a healthy-eating regime and allow a focused and measured approach to support nutritional status. Whether your concern is Choline and Iodine for learning and memory, or Magnesium and Lutein for relaxation and behaviour, a tailored supplement can support your child’s physical and mental development, and counter the nutritional deficiencies caused by specific diets or a fussy eater.

Don’t despair – with a few simple tips, healthy food availability and a little child-psychology, your children will be supported as they grow mentally and physically. Memory, visual processing, behaviour and mood can all be supported and strengthened with nutritional therapy and a healthy diet. Go forth and learn!


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