Brain Food: Nutrition & Brain Development
Brigitte Harton, RD, CD is a registered and certified dietitian with Hannaford supermarket. Brigitte attended the University of Montreal and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in dietetics from the University of Southern Mississippi. She has worked with Hannaford for the last 10 years teaching customers and community members about healthy eating and disease prevention and management. She also has close to 20 years experience in the fields of wellness, community, clinical and geriatric nutrition.
Adequate intake of nutrients during pregnancy and infancy is essential for supporting the rapid brain development occurring in the earliest years of a child’s life. In addition, mealtime offers a great opportunity for social and emotional development! Making sure children have key nutrients in their diet, and intentionally creating positive, routine mealtimes, helps children build a strong foundation of thinking, physical and social skills for future success in school, relationships and the workforce.
As a Hannaford dietitian, I help people make food choices that support their family’s health. I teach classes on topics ranging from managing chronic conditions (like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure) to dealing with food allergies and everything in between. I also perform store tours during which participants learn to read labels, find whole grains, hidden sugars and trans fats, and learn about the Guiding Stars™, Hannaford's nutrition navigation system. The Guiding Stars system awards one, two or three stars to foods that provide good, better or best nutritional attributes. Through systems like these, we’re trying to make it easy for people to make healthy choices. Choosing healthy foods is especially important during the earliest years of children’s lives, when their brain architecture is developing every day.
During pregnancy, infancy and early childhood, these nutrients are necessary for proper development:
- Folic Acid & Iron: For pregnant women, prenatal supplements are key because they contain more folic acid and iron than a standard supplement and will help support baby’s growth as well as prevent defects or spina bifida. Iron is also important for infants – it’s a structural component of the hemoglobin molecule, which transports oxygen in the blood. Infants with iron-deficiency anemia (low hemoglobin due to not enough iron) are at risk for poor mental and physical development.
- Essential Fatty Acids: Don't be afraid to eat fish! Unless a fish allergy is present, there is no need for pregnant women to stop eating fish, as long as they don’t consume more than 12 ounces of cooked fish per week. Fatty fish, like salmon, is rich in DHA fatty acid, which is beneficial for brain development. However, pregnant moms should avoid shark, swordfish, marlin and other large fish which have higher levels of mercury, a contaminant that, in high levels, could harm the developing nervous system. Nursing women and young children should also get adequate amounts of DHA by consuming no more than 12 oz of cooked fish per week and avoiding large fish. If fish isn’t an option, then parents and parents-to-be can discuss the possibility of taking an omega 3 DHA supplement with a physician.
- Copper: Copper is important to the formation of the baby's heart, blood vessels, and skeletal and nervous systems. Sesame seeds, cashews, soybeans, sunflower seeds, garbanzo beans and walnuts and lima beans all contain high levels of copper.
- Vitamin A & B-vitamins: All pregnant women and children should consume a well-balanced diet that includes vegetables, fruit, lean protein, whole grains, and dairy foods.
Once the baby is born, breastfeeding is the gold standard for healthy brain development, when possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months of life.
Not only does breastmilk contain the perfect blend of nutrients a baby needs for healthy development, the process of breastfeeding contributes to the formation of a secure relationship between baby and mother—which is very important for baby’s development of trust, self-esteem, and social-emotional skills.
After six months, the AAP recommends continued breastfeeding, combined with the introduction of other complementary foods.
Other Benefits of Mealtime
Mealtime offers even more than the opportunity to support a child’s healthy development: it also provides a chance to connect with the child, create routine, and encourage the child’s exploration and love of nutritious food.
When mealtime is a group activity, children can practice relating to others and developing their conversation skills. Giving children this focused time with caregivers also helps them feel safe and loved.
Making mealtime into a routine allows children to look forward to eating. This anticipation can be used to help a child understand the feeling of hunger. Also, when mealtime happens at the same time each day, it becomes predictable for the child, which contributes to his feelings of safety and security.
Children may need to try a new food up to 15 times before deciding it’s good to eat. The greater the variety of nutritious foods that a child likes, the more likely she is to develop a healthy diet! This kind of exploration can be encouraged with patience and a demonstration of how much her caregivers enjoy the new food.
The MyPlate food model, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be used to help kids understand the best proportions of fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grains and dairy to eat in each meal. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat dairy products for children aged 2 years and older.
By paying attention to nutrition and mealtimes, we can help support children’s healthy development. Proper nutrition throughout pregnancy, infancy and early childhood is one important step toward making sure that all Vermont children get the strongest mental and physical foundation for future success!