A Smarter Way To Feed Our Children?

25/04/2017 16:41 BST | Updated 25/04/2017 16:41 BST

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Many parents of young children will share the same hope; nurture your children the right way now and it will lead to them being healthy, happy and successful later in life. But how does the diet of young children impact their brain development?

As a nation who already has a childhood obesity epidemic, are we impairing our children's brains with poor diet? And more importantly, can we fix it?

What we understand as 'cognition' is the development of the brain with regards to attention, memory, thinking, learning, and perception. Our diet has great influence on cognitive development, more so than perhaps we appreciated in years prior.

While the brain does follow a predetermined genetic pathway for development, the food we give our children can influence this pathway. There is even research to suggest that the bacteria that colonise the gut influence our children's brain development directly. This gut-brain 'crosstalk' is not only influenced by early life events, for example antibiotic usage, but also the food we eat.

The body of published literature pointing to the connection between nutrition and optimal brain function is rapidly growing. Our nationwide approach to children's brains in relation to their diet, however, hasn't changed that much from observational research showing that children who eat breakfast, perform better at school.

The consequences are quite clear; research published only recently confirms that children who suffer from excess weight, do struggle academically, in large part due to the social effects but we cannot disregard the emerging research of physiological changes in the brain.

The key nutrients for brain health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folic acid, choline, iron, iodine, and zinc have long been established through randomised controlled trials. However, studies examining children provided with vitamins and minerals are woefully inconclusive; preventing deficiency is one thing, but overemphasising single nutrients is another. A whole diet, or moreover, a whole diet-brain approach is needed in early life.

The balance and types of foods, or 'diet quality' that our children eat for the rest of their lives is far more strongly correlated with the development of their brain than any single vitamin or mineral.

How we behave as parents is similarly important; we must be mindful of what we eat as parents, and our own relationships with food, as this can ultimately influence what our children will choose to eat.

Many well-meaning, healthy parents are steering the development of their children's brains through a proverbial storm of processed 'wonder-foods' and 'perceived' food intolerance. Staple food products are being vilified in the wave of new age 'frankenfoods' or are simply being removed completely. For instance, cows' milk intake has plummeted in UK diets by 30% in the last 30 years. Yet, we know that milk provides many of the nutrients highlighted above, such as iodine, pivotal in cognitive development, that so many do not get enough of, as highlighted by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.

There are some potential solutions though. Baycrest, a Canadian research institute focused on brain health and ageing has created the Brain Health Food Guide, which rather than specifically focusing on one "superfood" for brain health, sets into precedent some resoundingly simple approaches. The founding principles are well-trodden, plant-focused eating - nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, whole grains but with the inclusion of dairy and milk products and essential fatty acids from oily fish whilst limiting processed and red meat.

As dietitians we see many children who are seemingly 'overfed' yet simply 'malnourished'. Getting the balance of nutrients right for both ourselves and our children from their early years will avoid having to try and fix the problem later.

To quote the title of Dr Alex Richardson's excellent book, "They are what you feed them".

Photo credit: a2 Milk