Brain food for toddlers

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  Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Brain food for toddlers

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021
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A lot is said about the importance of a child’s first 1,000 days, and when it comes to early brain development, good nutrition at this time isn’t just food for thought – it’s essential.

Researchers explain that, ‘A great deal of the brain’s ultimate structure and capacity is shaped early in life before the age of three years,’ and good nutrition is a key factor that influences brain development at this crucial time.

It’s important that your toddler eats a healthy, balanced diet, and when it comes to specific foods, the researchers have identified 13 nutrients that are essential for early brain growth and function.

Today, we name these nutrients, and see which toddler-friendly foods contain these brain-boosters.

What nutrients are vital in your child’s first three years?

Although all nutrients are important for brain growth and function, the researchers have found that, ‘Certain ones have particularly significant effects during early development.’

Specifically, they say the following 13 nutrients are essential to optimise your child’s early brain development (in alphabetical order):

  • Carbohydrates
  • Choline
  • Copper
  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Protein
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamins B6 and B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc

These nutrients have been found to influence different brain functions.

Protein, iron, iodine and zinc appear to have an optimising effect on all of the critical neurologic processes happening in the brain (processes relating to anatomy, chemistry, physiology and metabolism). While the other nine nutrients impact the brain in individual ways.

For example, copper, choline and glucose (along with protein, iron, iodine and zinc) help with the brain’s physiology and metabolism by supporting the ‘electrical efficiency’ of little grey cells. And long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are a vital ‘macro-nutrient’ that helps with the development of the brain’s anatomy.

There’s evidence that nutrition can have short- and long-term effects on the brain, and as well as optimising brain growth and development, good nutrition may also help your child to use their brain to concentrate and behave in positive ways.

What should your toddler be eating?

For general good health, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that children eat a wide variety of foods from the five food groups every day and drink plenty of water.

As a guide, HealthDirect says two- to three-year-olds should have these portions each day:

  • 1 serve of fruit
  • 2.5 serves of vegetables
  • 4 serves of grains
  • 1 serve meat/poultry, and
  • 1.5 serves of dairy

In this mix, there are many toddler-friendly foods that contain the nutrients your child needs for optimal brain health.

Although this isn’t an exhaustive list and specific foods might not be appropriate for your child, the following foods are good sources of the 13 brain-boosting nutrients:

  • Protein is found in lean meats and seafood, eggs, milk, yoghurt (especially Greek yoghurt), cheese (especially cottage cheese), legumes and beans. Nuts and seeds are also protein-laden.
  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in oily fish (like salmon, tuna and mackeral) and walnuts.
  • Iron is easy to find in red meat, but foods like poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, dried fruit, oats, wholemeal pasta, iron-fortified bread and breakfast cereals, baked beans, spinach, broccoli, silverbeet and tofu also contain this nutrient.
  • Food Standards Australia and New Zealand explains that, ‘Iodine is in many foods, but much of the Australian and New Zealand food supply is now low in iodine.’ You can find it in sushi rolls (because seaweed contains iodine), canned salmon, bread (made with iodised salt), cheddar cheese, eggs and dairy (such as milk, flavoured yoghurt and ice-cream!).
  • Zinc is highly concentrated in oysters, but HealthDirect says it’s also plentiful in red meat and poultry, which will be more palatable for your toddler. Other good sources are tasty cheese, almonds, uncooked rolled oats, cornflakes, yoghurt and milk. 
  • Bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, oats and crispbread all contain lots of carbohydrates (which provide energy to the brain), and you’re encouraged to choose mostly wholegrain or high cereal fibre varieties because they’re higher in vitamins, minerals and fibre.
  • Choline is found in caviar, liver and kidneys, but for a more toddler-friendly food, eggs are the best bet. Most of the choline is found in the egg yolk, and foods like salmon, shiitake mushrooms, beef, chicken, turkey, cauliflower and broccoli are also good sources of choline.
  • In Australia, the main dietary sources of selenium are seafood, poultry and eggs, but foods like Brazil nuts (chopped up), beef, cottage cheese, brown rice and baked beans may also be selenium-rich.
  • Copper sounds like a strange thing for a child to eat, but the government says it’s widely distributed in seafood, nuts, seeds, wheat bran cereals and wholegrain products.
  • The Healthy Kids Association (HKA) says you’ll find Vitamin A in oily fish, full cream dairy products, butter and margarine, egg yolk and orange, yellow and green fruit and veg (including carrots, sweet potato, spinach, apricots, mango, pumpkin and broccoli).

We get Vitamin B6 from lean meat and poultry, fish, Vegemite, soybeans, nuts, wholegrains and green leafy vegetables. While Vitamin B12 is found in lean meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, milk and fortified soy products.

The HKA explains that Vitamin C is found in citrus fruit and juices, berries, pineapple, mango, pawpaw, capsicum, parsley, broccoli, spinach and cabbage.

While, Vitamin D is contained in oily fish, fortified margarine, eggs and, of course, healthy exposure to sunlight.

You’ll see a general theme here. Foods like eggs, seafood, lean meat, wholegrains and green veg contain lots of brain-boosting nutrients, but remember that moderation is key.

Raising Children says, ‘Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals – more isn’t necessarily better,’ so follow the government’s advice and serve up a wide variety of the five food groups in the quantities recommended for your child’s age.

If you’re unsure or worried about your little one’s diet, health or nutrient intake, then speak to a medical professional.

Remember, too, that under threes can choke on some foods, like whole nuts and seeds, hard fruit and vegies, bones in fish or big bits of meat. It’s very important to prepare them in safe ways, and there’s guidance from the Royal Children’s Hospital here.

How else can you support your young child’s early brain development?

As well as providing your toddler with good food, the researchers say you can also boost their early brain development by:

  • Reducing toxic stress and inflammation, and
  • Providing strong social support and secure attachment.

You can read more about toxic stress here, and your love and support is so important in babyhood, toddlerhood and beyond.

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment explains how a caring, consistent, sensitive and responsive relationship with a care-giver can make a child feel secure and confident, and you can read about the theory here

Additional reference

Medical News Today

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

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