Our brains are the engine that powers our body and mind. Good brain health is essential to ensuring mental and physical wellness. Offering your child a well-rounded diet from infancy through the teenage years doesn’t just help them gain height and muscle, it encourages brain development. A healthy eating plan nourishes the mind, as well as the body.
There are several reasons why eating well is good for a child’s brain health:
- Nutrition aids brain growth. A varied, nutrient-rich diet contributes to brain growth, which helps to shape a child’s long-term potential to learn.
- Diet may influence behavior. Being fueled by a variety of food scheduled throughout the day helps kids keep their focus. Healthy eating habits may contribute to better behavior at school.
- Food regulates mood. Eating on a regular schedule may help stabilize kids’ moods. Children who skip meals are more likely to be “hangry” or temperamental.
Most kids get the nutrition they need from the food they eat. Supplements aren’t necessary for the average growing child, but for picky eaters who shun entire food groups (such as fruits, vegetables or meat), multivitamins may be beneficial.
You can encourage your child to eat for better brain health, even if they don’t love superfoods like quinoa and salmon. Try these ideas:
- Offer all food groups. When kids eat a variety of foods, they consume an array of nutrients that contribute to brain development and growth. Serve fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, eggs, low-fat dairy products, fish and other lean meat and poultry. Your kids may miss out on certain nutrients – like protein, calcium or iron – if they’re too picky about what they eat.
- Serve breakfast. Eating first thing in the morning helps kids to concentrate more effectively during school than they would on an empty stomach. Even if breakfast is something small it can still go a long way to help have a successful day.
- Encourage hydration. Your brain is made of almost 75% water, so staying hydrated keeps it healthy. Kids who don’t drink enough are more prone to shifts in mood, increases in anxiety and decreases in attention. Dehydration may contribute to headaches or sleepiness.
- Limit sugary treats. Simple sugars are processed quickly, leaving your child feeling hungry again, which may lead to grazing. Sugar highs and lows may also negatively affect mood.
- Model healthy eating habits. If you want your child to eat healthy foods, be sure to eat those foods in front of your child often. They learn more by observing than by being told what to do.
- Involve your kids in meal prep. Kids are more likely to eat what they’ve helped to prepare, so invite older kids to chop and younger kids to stir. They’re also more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown, so consider planting some seeds, even on your kitchen counter.
- Eat meals as a family. Some families park themselves in front of the TV while they eat, but screen-free family mealtime encourages brain development. Engaging with each other helps everyone build positive relationships, learn about each other’s day and check in on one another’s emotional needs. Aim for one dinner per week without screens and build up from there.
Robert Dempster, PhD, and Wendelin Burdo-Hartman, MD
Rob Dempster, PhD, is the Program Director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Feeding Program and a psychologist in the Department of Pediatric Psychology and Neuropsychology at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Wendelin A. Burdo-Hartman, MD is a member of the Section of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. She also serves as the Medical Director of the Nationwide Children's Hospital Interdisciplinary Feeding Clinic.