Real Food Builds Better Brains for Babies

Real Food Builds Better Brains for Babies

Real Food Builds Better Brains for Babies

Food is preventative medicine,  economic investment, education reform and resource development. Food is community strengthening. Real Food builds better brains for babies.

Our most primal instincts tell us that babies are precious and miraculous: requiring fierce protection.  Science confirms this: the first 5 years of brain development are the most rapid and easily impacted. In the first few years, synapses are growing at a rate of 700 connections per second.

Healthy Food improves brain function Kellie Morrill I’ve been sitting in a conference for early educators and school leaders for the past few days.  We are discussing brain development and the importance of positive early experiences for children.  I can’t stop thinking about what’s missing from this conversation in our nation.

First, parents should understand brain research, and be honored and respected as brain builders.  Secondly, we should be having a national discussion about how the food we feed young children impacts their brains.  We should be talking about the future of young brains, and why the return of investment for growing healthy children is higher than any other investment we could ever make in our society.  There should be no question of removing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) from the market and creating equal access to healthy foods in all neighborhoods.

The healthiest brains are those that are well fed with experiences, positive interactions and good nutrition.  Feeding babies breast milk and introducing young children to real foods that their ancestors ate helps brain development for children to reach their highest potential.

[blockquote style=”1″]“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”  ~Thomas Edison[/blockquote]

We have an epidemic in the United States of children who are both obese and malnourished at the same time as a result of an abundance of low quality foods.  While our children may not look like the emaciated children on National Geographic, there is clear evidence that lack of nutrient dense diets are contributing to the rise in disease, learning delays and mood disorders.

From the Urban Child Institute:

[blockquote style=”1″]”A proper balance of nutrients in this formative period is critical for normal brain development.2,3 Shortages of nutrients such as iron and iodine can impair cognitive and motor development, and these effects are often irreversible. Similarly, there is growing evidence that DHA, an essential fatty acid, is a key component of the intensive production of synapses that makes the first years of life a critical period of learning and development. Many other nutrients—choline, folic acid, and zinc, to name just a few—have been linked specifically to early brain functioning.4,”[/blockquote]

Building Blocks for Brain Development

Young brains use certain proteins and fats to build new connections and protect fragile pathways.  Amino acids and fatty acids work together in the brain to build new proteins and fats that are critical in cognitive repair and development.  Just like the building blocks children play with, nutrition needs balance for strength.

Examples of precursors include:

  • Aspartic Acid, used to make aspartate;
  • Choline,  used to make acetylcholine;
  • Glutamic acid, used to make glutamate;
  • Phenylalanine, used to make dopamine;
  • Tryptophan, used to make serotonin;
  • Tyrosine, used to make norepinephrine

Importance of Diet

These neurotransmitters play an important role in hormone balancing, moods, memory, focus, and learning.  When these important precursors aren’t available, the brain is not able to build enough connections.  Neurological and mental disorders may occur when this fragile balance is upset.  Many traditional foods such as high quality meats, fish, and eggs contain precursors (starting materials) for neurotransmitters.  Some can also be found in nuts and seeds, but may need to be paired to achieve the same effects.

A diet of nutrient dense foods is a mother’s best tool for creating healthy brain.  It’s not surprising that the most important micronutrients for healthy brain development are found in traditional foods our ancestors ate.

Iron helps in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and myelin, a critical component of brain growth. Iron deficiencies can lead to lower cognitive function and social problems, and are often found in children with attention deficit disorders or autism.  The best source of dietary iron is heme iron, found in high quality organ meats, turkey, beef, chicken or fish.  Non heme iron is found in broccoli, spinach and dried apricots and is less efficiently absorbed by the body; pair it with foods high in vitamin C such as oranges or strawberries to increase absorption.

Zinc helps the body to metabolize fats, carbohydrates and protein, and is critical in binding proteins to build brain structure.  It also protects against free radicals.  Reach for salmon, pumpkin seeds, garlic, organic beef, and egg yolks.

Vitamin D helps protect the brain by preventing neuro-degenerative diseases and strengthening the immune system.  Food sources include fish, eggs and fortified dairy products.  You might want to add fermented cod liver oil.  This traditional food is also high in omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA

B Vitamins (1,6,9,12) help to modulate cognitive function and moods.  These vitamins support memory, focus and self regulation.  B12 improves cognitive and language function in young brains.  Again, your best sources are leafy greens and animal products such as chicken, fish and organic beef.

Brain-Gut Connections

I’m going to save this complex subject for another post, but there’s increasing evidence that digestion and gut bacteria also impact behavior and how the brain works.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recently acknowledged the brain-gut connection and called for further research on links between autism and diet.  Gluten intolerance and yeast may be two big culprits in creating intestinal problems that impact brain development. Follow These Five Tips For Healthy Brain Development:

 1. Breast-feed or make formula from real foods.

We know that breast milk is best, but maternal nutrition is important too. Mothers need diets rich in vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins during pregnancy and breast feeding.  If something goes wrong and your baby can’t breastfeed, check out The Weston A. Price Foundation for recipes for infant formula and foods you can make with real foods.

2. Just Eat Real Food

Plan for meals as a family where everyone’s plate includes leafy greens, high quality sources of protein and fats, and some varied fruits, nuts and seeds.  Get your carbohydrates from the most nutrient dense sources such as root vegetables.  Avoid processed foods, including chemicals, preservatives, and anything you can’t pronounce.

3. Be sure to get enough Omega 3 fatty acids.

Most Americans eat far too many foods high in Omega 6 fatty acids, and not enough Omega 3’s.  Omega balance supports healthy brain development, as well as a host of other health benefits. The best source of Omega 3 is wild caught fish.

4. Find a supportive pediatrician.

Look for a naturopath or holistic pediatrician who understands that nutrition impacts health.  Most traditional doctors get very little nutrition information, and what they do get is often from biased texts paid for by food companies and drug companies.  If you are committed to a whole foods diet, you’ll want good guidance, and may want to explore supplementation or food sensitivities.

5. Establish good habits early.

Eat together as a family and model healthy eating. Introduce new foods often and revisit foods together as a family.  By encouraging exploration of foods, you can establish good habits at an early age and offset some of the peer pressure that comes later with weekly school cupcakes and candy rewards.



Urban Child Institute: Nutrition and Early Brain Development

Daniel L. Coury, MDaPaul Ashwood, PhDbAlessio Fasano, MDcGeorge Fuchs, MDdMaureen Geraghty, PhD, RDeAjay Kaul, MBBS, MDfGary Mawe, PhDgPaul Patterson, PhDh, and Nancy E. Jones, PhDi. Gastrointestinal Conditions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Developing a Research Agenda, PEDIATRICS Vol. 130 No. Supplement 2 November 1, 2012 pp. S160 –S168

Elizabeth Prado and Kathryn Dewey, Nutrition and Brain Development in Early Life, A&T Technical Brief Issue 4, January 2012

Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3

Nutrition and the Brain

Five Numbers to Remember About Early Child Development, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University





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