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Nutrition and Behavior, Learning

How would you describe your child?



Great memory?

Or, instead, do you use these words?



Poor inhibition?


Poor concentration or attention?

Did you realize that what your child eats could lead to the above descriptions?

The United States has been called the land of plenty. But before the COVID-19 pandemic, one child in 6 lived in a food-insecure household. One child in 100 was chronically malnourished. Childhood challenges like this have only worsened with the shutdowns due to the pandemic resulting in many low-income parents losing their jobs. Food banks have struggled to keep up with the demands for food. The result is that children eat more non-nutritious food than ever or have even less nutritious food.

For many of these children, poor nutrition pre-pandemic leading to behavioral and learning problems, has worsened due to the pandemic.

The nutritional risk begins with the mother before she becomes pregnant. If she is not eating a healthy diet, she will be low in the nutrients that her developing fetus will need during pregnancy. If her diet continues to be below par during pregnancy, she will be at increased risk of having a tiny baby with Intrauterine Growth Retardation (IUGR). These infants have poor development of their brains and body organs. They are at high risk for behavioral problems and low IQs, meaning learning problems.

Expectant mothers need these top prenatal nutrients for a healthy baby:

  • Proteins – These are important for brain development, neurotransmitters, and growth. It is better for the mother to eat lean meats and unprocessed meats, most importantly seafood, which also provides LC-PUFAs, which would not have excess fats and oils.


  • LC-PUFAs – These long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for cognition (IQ) AND attention. Parents won't recognize the benefits of a diet with sufficient LC-PUFAs in their child's diet until 3-6 years of age because they are used to build the neurotransmitters in the brain as well as the visual brain system and the prefrontal lobe, which are essential for attention, inhibition, and attention. Foods rich in LC-PUFAs include salmon, tuna, mackerel, ground flaxseed, walnuts, and sunflower seeds.


  • Iron – This mineral is essential for brain development and could increase the world's IQ by 10 points if all women and children had adequate iron in their diets. Meats, beans, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits such as raisins and apricots are excellent sources of iron.


  • Zinc – Mothers need adequate zinc levels to share their unborn child due to its effects on later learning, attention, memory, and mood. Foods that are good sources of zinc include chicken, tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils, yogurt, oatmeal, and mushrooms.


  • Iodine – This nutrient is essential for thyroid development. If the expectant mother is deficient in iodine, she risks having a newborn with cretinism. Cretinism is extremely serious, with the likelihood of an IQ of 30, hearing and speech problems as well as gait (walking) issues. When diagnosed at birth with cretinism and thyroid replacement therapy is begun immediately (before four weeks of age), the child has a chance of average brain growth. Cod and tuna, seaweed, dairy products, and iodized salts are good sources of iodine. For salts, you need to read the label because salt often doesn't have added iodine, such as sea salt, Himalayan salt, or kosher salt. Most processed food with salt also does not have iodine.

There are also many other nutrients we all need, but the ones listed above play critical roles in the healthy development of the fetus's brain. The absence of a healthy diet for a fetus or infant results in lifelong issues with attention, memory, learning, behavior, and mood is substantial. The American Academy of Pediatrics has designated the first 1000 days of a baby's life (conception through 2nd birthday) as essential for proper nutrition to have normal brain development. While all nutrients are necessary for body and brain growth, they noted these as crucial nutrients that support neurodevelopment:

  • protein
  • zinc
  • iron
  • choline
  • folate
  • iodine
  • vitamins A, D, B6, and B12
  • long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids


It is not just the first 1000 days of nutrition, however. Throughout life, nutrient-rich food affects physical and brain development and mental health.

A study in the late 1990s looked at adolescents who lived off "junk food." They found that these adolescents were deficient in Thiamin, also known as vitamin B1. They were described as very irritable, with aggressive behavior and personality changes. Many suffered from anxiety. These adolescents would benefit from diets that include:

  • whole grains (brown rice, oats, barley, for example),
  • vegetables, especially green and leafy, but also beets,
  • legumes such as lentils, soybeans, nuts, and seeds,
  • and orange and tomato juices


Another nutrient to consider is tyrosine, which is an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins. Tyrosine is critical for developing three neurotransmitters in our brain, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Dopamine impacts attention, memory, impulse control, and the ability to inhibit behaviors. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are related to our brain's fight or flight area. They are essential for our bodies to be ready to handle stress. If your child is showing problems related to low tyrosine levels, you can ensure you provide your child with high-protein products, such as meats, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, avocados, and bananas. It would also be essential to look at foods that could worsen these behaviors, such as highly processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat.

A final nutrient to look at is tryptophan, which is an amino acid, just like tyrosine. Tryptophan is essential in the development of the neurotransmitter serotonin. You may have heard of serotonin in terms of anxiety and depression. But did you know that most of your serotonin originates in your digestive system? The origin of serotonin is interesting to note since it stimulates nausea as a means of pushing out harmful or upsetting foods. That is much faster than waiting for it to get out through diarrhea.


Serotonin is important for –

  • Mood balance, such as anxiety and depression
  • It is important in your ability to heal your wounds
  • It helps with sleep and waking up
  • It maintains bone health


So, if your child is having issues with anxiety, depression, or the other effects noted, what nutritious foods should you make available to your child? I may sound like a broken record, but high-quality meat, especially turkey, cheese, and nuts, are excellent choices for your child's health.

Now, I don't know if you noticed, but I didn't recommend many foods advertised on TV, the Internet, and print media. That is because most highly processed foods have removed many nutrients, although they try to add back some vitamins and minerals. Unlike whole food, however, these additions don't work as well since they can't work with each other like whole foods.


So, when your child complains of being hungry or wanting a snack, whole foods are the better choices, such as fresh or frozen fruits, not roll-ups made sweeter with corn syrup and maltodextrin. Most cereals and toaster pastries are limited in nutritional value with added sugar. Better choices would be oatmeal or fresh fruits with whole-grain bread. Most frozen dinners and fast-food restaurants use high levels of fats, salt, and sugars for taste. They are not healthy. Lean meats or many types of beans, such as black, pinto, and chickpea, are good sources of protein and fiber.


I am not saying you should never give your child processed foods, but it should be a rare treat, not the primary source of nutrition. The excess fats, sugar, and salt are addictive and make whole food appear lower in taste. But by making whole food the central part of your child's diet, you will allow them to enjoy what nature has created and improve their ability to learn, socialize, and feel better about themselves.

If you are interested in an in-depth look at three factors of children and adolescents that can create positive or negative futures, check out my program, Developing a Calm Class.