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Nutrition and Behavior, Learning

How would you describe your child?

Energetic?

Attentive?

Great memory?

Or instead, do you use these words?

Irritable?

Impulsive?

Poor inhibition?

Aggressive?

Poor concentration or attention?

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

The United States has been called the land of plenty. But before the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 child in 6 lived in a food-insecure household. One child in 100 was chronically malnourished. This has only worsened with the shutdowns due to the pandemic resulting in many low-income parents losing their jobs. Food banks have found it difficult to keep up with the demands for food. This means that children are eating more non-nutritious food than ever or having even less nutritious food.

But for many of these children, poor nutrition was there before the pandemic leading to behavioral and learning problems that have 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 for having a small baby who has 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, which will mean learning problems.

The top prenatal nutrients which are needed for a healthy baby consist of:

  • 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. The benefits of a diet with sufficient LC-PUFAs won’t be recognized 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 is important 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 the diets. Meats, beans, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits such as raisins and apricots are great sources of iron.

 

  • Zinc – It is important for mothers to have 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. This is extremely serious with the likelihood of an IQ of 30, hearing and speech problems as well as gait (walking) issues. If the infant is recognized at birth as having cretinism and thyroid replacement therapy is begun immediately (before 4 weeks of age) the child has a change of normal brain growth. Good sources of iodine are cod and tuna, seaweed, dairy products, and iodized salts. For salts, you need to read the label, because many times salt doesn’t have iodine added, 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 that we all need, but the ones listed above play critical roles in the healthy development of the fetus’s brain. If the fetus and infant are not provided with a healthy diet the risk of 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 important for body and brain growth, they noted these as key 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 that nutrition, however. All through life nutrition affects physical and brain development, as well as mental health.

 

There was a study done in the late 1990s looking at adolescents who lived off “junk food”. What they found was that these adolescents were deficient in Thiamin, also known as vitamin B1. They were described as very irritable, had aggressive behavior, and personality changes. Anxiety was often found too. To help these kids, their diet should 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. It is essential in the development of three neurotransmitters in our brain, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Dopamine is important in attention, memory, impulse control, and the ability to inhibit behaviors. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are related to the fight or flight area of our brain. They are important for our bodies to be ready to handle stress. If your child is showing problems that may be related to tyrosine, you can make sure you are providing your child with high protein products, such as meats, eggs, tofu, nuts, and seeds, avocados, and bananas. It would also be important 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. This is important 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 is created in your digestive system? This is interesting to note since one thing it does is stimulate nausea as a means of pushing out noxious or upsetting foods. That is much faster than waiting for it to get out through diarrhea.

 

It 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 a lot of foods that are advertised on TV, the Internet, and print media. That is because the vast majority are highly processed foods where many nutrients have been removed, although they try to add back in some vitamins and minerals. Unlike whole food, however, these additions don’t work as well since they are not integrated like whole-food.

 

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 which have been made sweeter with corn syrup and maltodextrin. The same would be seen with most cereals and Pop-Tarts ™.  It is also seen with most frozen dinners and with fast-food restaurants.

 

I am not saying you should never give your child processed foods, but it should be a rare treat, not the main 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 main 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 3 factors of children and adolescents that can create positive or negative futures, check out my program, Never Assume: Know Children Before Labeling Them.

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