Top Brain Nutrients for Your Child

From your baby’s first weeks in the womb through the early years of life, his brain develops at an astonishing rate. A growing body of research pinpoints key nutrients that play a particularly important role during this time of complex and rapid transformation. Among them are folate, carbohydrates, fats (such as DHA / ARA), iron, iodine, protein, zinc, copper, selenium, choline, and vitamin A. This chart highlights some of the most significant nutrients that influence your child’s brain development.

ARA (arachidonic acid)

What does it do? ARA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid and a key omega-6 fatty acid in the brain. (38) Fatty acids allow for the production of myelin, a dense substance that protects neuronal connections and allows signals to pass between brain cells quickly. Rapid-fire messaging makes all sorts of cognitive and motor advancements possible, from learning language to understanding abstract concepts to coordinating complex movements.

Where can my child get it? Breast milk, formula, and vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, and corn; meat, poultry, and eggs contain ARA in small amounts.

Carbohydrates

What do they do? Carbohydrates from whole food sources—for example, fruit, brown rice, and whole grain cereal, bread, and pasta—quickly turn into glucose in the body. And glucose is the brain’s main source of energy. Children metabolize glucose especially quickly. In fact, the rate of glucose metabolism increases steadily from birth to about age 3, by which time the rate is about twice as fast as an adult’s. It’s especially important that children eat regular meals and snack (on healthy foods) every few hours to maintain a continuous supply. An extended period without food can cause glucose levels to dip, resulting in impaired self-control, difficulty focusing, irritability, fatigue, and other problems.

Where can my child get them? Breast milk, formula, whole grain products such as breads and cereals, potatoes, corn, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

What does it do? DHA, a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, is a major structural fat in the brain, important for building strong, efficient connections between neurons. Fatty acids allow for the production of myelin, a dense substance that protects neuronal connections and allows signals to pass between brain cells quickly. Rapid-fire messaging makes all sorts of cognitive and motor advancements possible, from learning language to understanding abstract concepts to coordinating complex movements.

Where can my child get it? Breast milk (but the levels can vary based on the mother’s diet), formula, and fatty coldwater fish such as salmon, bluefin tuna, black cod, sardines, and herring; small amounts are also present in meat and eggs. 

Folate

What does it do? This B vitamin is important throughout pregnancy but is particularly essential during the first few weeks. That’s when the neural tube, which will eventually develop into the brain and spinal cord, is forming. Folate plays a key role in healthy cell formation, growth, and reproduction, and it helps build genetic material. However, children in countries where many cereals and grains are fortified with folic acid (such as the U.S.) are more likely to exceed the recommended intake, which may also pose a risk.

Where can my child get it? Breast milk, formula, liver, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, oranges, cantaloupe, lean beef, whole grain breads and cereals, and fortified grain products such as breads and cereals.

Iodine

What does it do? In the womb and during the early months of life, the thyroid plays an important role in the development of the central nervous system and brain. Iodine is essential for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, directly affecting the brain, as well as the muscles, heart, kidneys, and pituitary gland.

Where can my child get it? Breast milk, formula, saltwater fish and other seafood, including seaweed and kelp; iodized salt (table salt fortified with potassium iodide); some processed foods (although many processed foods are high in salt, it’s typically not iodized salt); and small amounts in milk, grain products, and eggs.

Iron

What does it do? Iron is a component of all cells in the body, vital to the formation and healthy function of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the brain and fuel its growth. (55; 38) Iron can be dangerous when consumed in excess, possibly causing developmental delays. So consult with your doctor if you’re considering a supplement.

Where can my child get it? Breast milk, formula, meat, liver, poultry, fish, tofu, legumes, beans, seeds, whole grain breads and cereals, fortified or enriched grain products, and dark green vegetables.