Can food boost your child’s intelligence?

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When it comes to your child’s brain power, both nature and nurture play a role. Let’s look at how your child’s intellectual ability can be affected by the foods you put on his plate.

Many of us think our intelligence is something we’re born with, passed down by our parents, and set in concrete. While it’s true that genetics certainly do play a part, in recent years, we’ve learnt a lot more about the role that diet plays in shaping our cognitive ability. Scientists have identified five dietary factors that are especially important when it comes to brain function. Knowing about these can help you give your child the best start to life when it comes to all aspects of his mental development, including his learning, language, memory, attention span, problem solving and, as he grows, his performance at school.

1. Omega-3 fats – omega-3 fats make up a significant proportion of the human brain so it should come as no surprise that they have a big impact on our cognitive ability. Studies have found that children whose mums ate plenty of fish – such as omega-3 rich salmon and sardines – during pregnancy have overall better language skills and higher IQs. Similarly, there is evidence that children who have diets high in omega-3 tend to have better cognitive development. In fact, scientists think it’s the high concentration of these fats in breastmilk that probably explains why breastfed babies have often been found to outdo their peers on intelligence tests. Breastfeeding mums can boost the omega-3 levels of their milk by eating foods like eggs, oily fish, and linseed. Once your baby starts solids, you should include these foods in his diet to help support his rapidly growing brain.

2. Iron – iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 8% of Australian pre-schoolers have iron deficiency anaemia, and it’s likely that the rates of milder iron deficiency are much higher. Because iron is used to make the brain chemicals that regulate your child’s ability to pay attention, being deficient can make him less motivated to persevere with mentally-demanding tasks and impair his overall cognitive development. There have been studies showing that treating children with iron deficiency anaemia increases their IQ. To avoid a deficiency, mums should make sure they’re getting enough iron during pregnancy and children should be given plenty of iron-rich foods from the time of starting solids onwards. Good sources include red meat, chicken thigh and leg meat (which contains about twice as much iron as the breast fillet), liver and legumes.

3. Iodine – in Australia, iodine deficiency has been another widespread problem, which is why the Government has now made it compulsory for manufacturers to use iodised salt in bread. The relationship between iodine deficiency and cognitive function is well established, with one review of 18 scientific studies finding an overall 13.5 point difference in IQ between iodine-deficient and iodine-sufficient children. Sources of iodine include seafood, seaweed, dairy products, bread and iodised salt (although there are important health reasons to minimise your child’s salt intake).

4. Breakfast – it’s something we’ve all heard before, but breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A number of studies have shown that children who eat breakfast have better concentration and attention spans and perform better at school. On the other hand, those who miss their morning meal are more likely to be irritable, tired, restless and easily distracted. In a recent study of almost 1400 school children, it was found that those who hadn’t eaten breakfast performed 7 to 10% worse on a range of various attention and memory tests. One reason why breakfast is so critical is that a child’s brain metabolises glucose about twice as fast as an adult’s. So after a night’s sleep without food, a child’s brain really needs some fuel. However, not all breakfasts are the same. Choosing a nutritious breakfast with a low glycaemic index – like porridge and yoghurt – is best for your child, as the slow energy release will give his brain a steadier flow of glucose, making it easier for him to learn new things.

5. Overall nutritious diet – having an overall healthy diet is also an important brain booster for children. One study found that children who had eaten higher amounts of fruits, vegetables and home-cooked meals during infancy (ie, 6-12 months) had a higher IQ at 4 years old. Another found that children who had eaten a healthy diet (with more rice, salad, fruits and pasta) at 3 years old had a higher IQ when tested at 8 years old, as compared with children eating lots of processed foods with a high fat and sugar content. Similar results have been found in other studies.

Although we’ve always known that eating well is good for children’s physical wellbeing, we now also know it’s good for their brains. Given that your child’s brain grows at its fastest rate during his first three years of life, it’s the best possible time – during pregnancy, breastfeeding and those early years – to be thinking about his diet and how you can enhance it to nurture his extraordinary mind.

Tip: although fish can be a great source of omega-3 fats and iodine, unfortunately some species contain high levels of mercury. Species to watch out for are orange roughy (also known as sea perch), catfish, shark (also known as flake) and billfish (also known as swordfish, broadbill and marlin). You should avoid giving your baby any of these high-mercury species and certainly no more than once a fortnight.

Nutrient

Adequate / recommended intake

Dietary example
( = approximate amount of nutrient )

Omega-3 fats

(DHA, EPA and/or ALA)

Pregnant women: 115 mg/day

Breastfeeding women: 145 mg/day

Children 1-3 years: 40 mg/day

1 egg = 76 mg

1 egg (omega 3 enriched) = 126 mg

5 g chia seeds = 970 mg

50 g tinned sardines  = 1215   mg

100 g tinned salmon = 2106 mg

Iron

Pregnant women: 27 mg/day

Breastfeeding women: 9 mg/day

Babies 7-12 months: 11 mg/day

Children 1-3 years: 9 mg/day

1 egg = 2 mg

100 g tinned red kidney beans = 2 mg

100 g cooked steak = 3 mg

100 g English spinach = 3.5 mg *

100 g cooked chicken liver = 11 mg

Iodine

Pregnant women: 220 mg/day

Breastfeeding women: 270 mg/day

Babies 7-12 months: 110 mg/day

Children 1-3 years: 90 mg/day

100 g green beans = 20 mg

100 g cooked snapper fish = 40 mg

200 ml cow’s milk = 46 mg

1 egg = 47 mg

100 g cooked mussels = 268 mg

 

* Despite having a relatively high iron content, spinach is not one of the best sources of iron because its fibre and oxalate content binds to the iron and hinders its absorption into the body (this also occurs with other vegetables). Nevertheless, it does contain plenty of other nutrients which make it an excellent healthy choice for your child.

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'What guides me is home cooking, listening to my appetite, using whole food ingredients, prioritising plant foods and keeping highly processed foods out of my kitchen.'