How foods and nutrition impact brain health
Much of what we’ve learned about nutrition is how a healthy eating pattern can help our children prevent chronic disease, protect their hearts, or manage their weight. Did you know nutrition is connected to your child’s brain health, too?
The human brain controls every function in our body, and it enables us to think, learn, create and feel emotions. Even though our brain is only two percent of our body weight, it accounts for at least 20 percent of our body’s energy requirements.1 Many nutrients are important for early development of a child’s brain and nervous system, including folic acid, iodine, choline and omega-3 fatty acids.2 In a way, the food we eat fuels our brain!
A possible factor in the nutrition and brain-health relationship may be the gut-brain axis, which is a connection between our brain and digestive tract that allows for two-way communication.3, 4, 5 We’re still learning more about how foods can impact this system.
A possible connection with mental health, too
What’s also important to share is that growing research is now suggesting links between our mental health and our eating patterns.
-Some studies observed that people with emotional and behavioral difficulties more commonly have an eating pattern lower in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, iodine, magnesium and zinc, among other
s nutrients.6, 7
-Other studies observed that people with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism and psychosis more commonly follow eating patterns high in processed, energy-dense foods.8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 These energy-dense foods are often limited in important nutrients like vitamins and minerals that the brain needs to function at its best.
-A recent study has shown that with adults receiving standard treatment for depression (medications and/or therapy), following an eating pattern rich in whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins and dairy was more effective than receiving standard treatment with only social support.14
All of this research is still in the early stages, and it’s too soon to know of an eating pattern that is “best” for mental health and how mental health may influence food choices. What we do know, however, is how your child’s food choices can nourish their body and brain.
Nutrients and brain function
Just as a car needs fuel to keep itself running, our bodies and brains run on food! While we still need to find out more about how nutrition relates to mental health, we know a varied and balanced diet can help support a healthy body and brain.
Let’s take a look at how the nutrients in food can help support your child’s body and brain health.
-Carbohydrates provide fuel to keep the body and brain energized.15 Carbohydrates higher in fiber are broken down more slowly, so they provide a longer lasting source of fuel than refined and highly-processed carbohydrates lower in fiber (like sweets, sugary drinks, some snack-type foods and refined grains).16 Carbohydrates in their most natural form also have vitamins and minerals important for brain function.17, 18 Focus on whole grains like brown rice, oats and 100 percent whole wheat bread, beans, vegetables and fruits.
-Proteins are broken down into amino acids and used for functions like helping produce some of the chemicals used for brain function (neurotransmitters).19, 20 Protein-rich foods also supply vitamins and minerals important for brain health, like B-vitamins, iron and zinc.19 Protein options can include lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and low-fat dairy products.
-Fats contribute to the structure and function of the brain. Our brain is actually rich in some of the fats we get through our diet, especially omega-3 fatty acids.21 Moderate amounts of cold-water fatty fish (like salmon, albacore tuna and sardines), walnuts, flaxseeds and canola oil provide these omega-3 fatty acids.22
All of these foods are included in MyPlate (shown below), which is an eating pattern based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This eating pattern encourages our children to get the right balance of nutrients needed for overall good health,23 which also includes nutrients for brain health! Consuming a variety of foods from each MyPlate food group (and limiting foods with added sugars, saturated fats and excess sodium) can help your child get in the nutrients they need to nourish their body and brain.
Image source: Choosemyplate.gov24
Consistency is key for healthy change
We realize that just providing information about how a healthy eating pattern nourishes both the body and brain is only a first step. Changing eating patterns can be a challenging process, especially with kids, and we’re here with support for this as well.
National surveys are showing that top sources of calories among children and adolescents in the United States are highly processed foods like snack foods, desserts, pizza and sodas.25 These are the staples of the so-called “Western diet,” an eating pattern that includes a high intake of energy-dense foods. We know this eating pattern is often low in many of the important food groups shown on MyPlate.
So, how does your child’s current eating pattern compare? Can they use more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins or healthy fats to boost their nutrition? And if so, how do you help them try new, maybe unfamiliar, foods?
We know consistency is key in establishing eating patterns that can make a lasting impact on our health. For ideas on how to change your child’s plate at home to nourish their body and brain, check out our Pathway to a healthier 2020 blog for nutrition-boosting tips and strategies.
It is important to keep in mind that nutrition is not a substitute for therapy or medications. Some children may also have health conditions that require specific nutrition recommendations. Please continue following your doctor’s advice for personalized recommendations.
Dr. Valentina Cimolai, child and adolescent psychiatrist, and Katelynn Perzynski, registered dietitian
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