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That’s a smart kid!

Better nutrition and adequate consumption of several key nutrients may help with cognitive development and academic performance of children.

HOW do you raise smart kids? In our increasingly competitive world, parents want to raise kids not only to be healthy in body but also with a competitive mental edge.

While intelligence and cognitive development are the result of a complex interplay between genetics, socio-economic, cultural and environmental factors, better nutrition and adequate consumption of several key nutrients may also help with cognitive development and academic performance.

Early foundations

The development of a child’s brain starts in the womb, when the brain and central nervous system are still developing. Stimulants like alcohol or other drugs and inadequate nutrition may negatively affect brain development at this stage.

After birth, a child’s brain continues to develop past infancy and balanced nutrition continues to play a key role in your child achieving his or her optimum cognitive abilities.

Smart fats

Research into the contribution of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in brain formation and development has found improvements in attention and problem-solving capabilities in children who received omega-3 enriched infant formula compared to those who did not.

Scientists believe that omega-3 PUFAs in breast milk is one of the reasons why children who are breastfed perform better in IQ tests than those who were raised on infant formula. Adequate omega-3 in the diet seems to be especially critical for babies born prematurely.

Some studies have also suggested a link between low omega-3 PUFA levels with certain neuro-developmental disorders like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism.

More studies are needed to test these possible links before any firm conclusions can be drawn, and omega-3 recommended as a treatment.

To boost omega-3 intake, add omega-3 rich foods to the diet on a regular basis. For example walnuts and seafood such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, shrimp and scallops are rich sources of omega-3 PUFAs.

Flax seeds and eggs produced by hens fed on flax seed or fish-meal are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Supplements can also be considered but foods are better sources and excessive intakes of fish oil carry some health risks, such as impaired blood clotting.

It is therefore advisable to consult with your family doctor before giving your child omega-3 supplements.

Smart minerals

Iron also plays an essential role in a child’s brain development, and many studies have demonstrated that children whose diets are deficient in iron perform poorly with regard to developmental levels, cognitive abilities and school performance.

This is a widespread problem – iron deficiency is common amongst all age groups (in fact iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world).

It is also a very urgent problem, because the impact of iron deficiency on cognitive development continues into later life, even after iron levels in the body have been raised to normal healthy concentrations.

Meats like beef, chicken and pork are rich in iron, and fish also makes a valuable contribution to iron nutrition.

For children who do not eat animal foods, the best sources of iron are whole grains, including oats, brown rice, whole wheat products such as bread and noodles, as well as dark, green vegetables such as spinach, peas and beans. Legumes and dried beans are also useful sources.

Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones, which in turn are essential for the growth and development of the brain. Iodine deficiency is increasingly rare, but can result in severe mental impairment amongst children eating poor quality diets because of extreme poverty.

For the majority of Asia’s children, adequate levels of iodine are consumed from seafood and seaweed (like kelp and nori), iodised salt, eggs, poultry and dairy products.

Smart eating patterns

There is also a great deal of research evidence that when children eat may be just as important as what they eat and how much they eat.

Studies of otherwise well-nourished children show that those who eat breakfast – regardless of what they eat – perform better in school in mathematics, continuous performance tasks and problem-solving, than those who skip breakfast.

Breakfast eating is associated in the long term with better concentration and attendance.

Children who eat breakfast are also more likely to meet their requirements for energy, protein as well as important key nutrients like iron, B vitamins and calcium – which ultimately contribute not only to better cognitive abilities but good overall health.

Because the brain is a huge consumer of sugar, children need to eat regular meals throughout the day to fuel not only their growing bodies, but their brains as well. Hence it is important to ensure that children eat frequently by including nutrient-rich snacks as well as regular meals in their daily diet.

Putting good nutrition into action

So how are parents to make use of these findings?

First of all, remember that nutrients are most effectively absorbed as food than as supplements. There is evidence that many nutrients are absorbed better in the presence of other nutrients; for example, vitamin C helps with iron absorption.

There may also be positive interactions between nutrients that researchers have not fully examined.

However, for some children with challenging eating habits such as fussy eating, supplements might be helpful, but do check with a qualified health professional first.

Give your baby the right start from infancy by breastfeeding as much as possible in the first six months. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for approximately the first six months of life.

For those families where this is not possible, high quality infant formulas that do contain the necessary nutrients for your infant’s growth and development, including omega-3 PUFAs, are available.

Introduce a wide variety of foods to your child from a young age. While your child may not like all foods they try the first time, giving them variety fosters a positive, adventurous attitude to food, which is fundamental to long term good nutrition.

Children and adults whose diet consist of a great diversity of foods have a much better chance of meeting their nutritional requirements and enjoying a healthy diet.

Remember also that good nutrition can include take-out and convenience foods, as well as home cooked foods.

The key is to apply the principles of moderation, balance and variety no matter what the source.

Planning ahead

Parents often experience difficulty getting children to eat breakfast in the morning. In the rush to get the kids to school and beat the morning traffic, it’s easy to skip breakfast.

A little advance planning helps to ensure that your child gets breakfast and makes it to school on time.

Make store-bought breakfast foods work for you. Stock up on whole-grain, lower-sugar ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and ice-cold milk.

If your children are lactose-intolerant, soymilk or yoghurt works great with cereal as well. For additional fibre and vitamins, sprinkle the cereal with fresh, dried or frozen fruit.

Kids don’t even have time to sit down for breakfast? Get them oatmeal or granola bars that they can munch on the school bus, washed down with convenient packs of dairy or soy milk.

Whole grains contain a healthy dose of iron as well as complex carbohydrates that will help to fuel your child for longer periods of time. Traditional foods like buns with red-bean filling are also a good option. Be creative!

To keep your child mentally active and alert throughout the day, pack high nutrient snacks like dried fruit, nuts and cereal bars in their school bag.

These snacks will also help to keep them away from snacks that they may buy at school which are big on calories but low in micronutrients like iron and omega-3 PUFAs.

Make it work for the long term

Take care not to be over-zealous in introducing “healthy” foods to children. Chips and candy for example, are fine as an occasional treat as long as they are not eaten frequently.

Keep plenty of fresh and dried fruits, nuts and high-fibre snacks like whole-grain crackers at home for them to munch on in between meals.

Remember, snacking between meals is actually healthful for the growing child, especially if the snacks provide both calories and other nutrients.

Never force your children to empty their plates. Instead, let them decide how much to eat and when. This may help children to tune into their own internal appetite cues, and avoid any tendencies to excess consumption and undesirable weight gain.

When children are busy with school work and activities, do encourage play and physical activity as a counter-balance. Rest, relaxation and physical activity are as important for brain development as much as a good diet.

Play and relaxation helps children emotionally and psychologically, helping them to learn interpersonal skills not found in books or from study.

Feeding and nurturing a bright child through good nutrition is not achieved by relying on supplements or insisting that children eat “super” foods they do not like.

A more effective, proven strategy is to nurture positive, sensible eating habits that fit into a balanced and fun lifestyle and contribute to lifelong good health.

Further reading:

1. Bryan, J. et al (2004) Nutrients for Cognitive Development in School-aged children. Nutrition Reviews, August 2004: 295-306.

2. Leon-Cava, N. et al (2002) Effects of Breastfeeding on Motor and Intellectual Development in Quantifying the Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Summary of the Evidence. June 2002 The Linkages Project.

3. Rampersaud, G. et al (2005) Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005 (105) 743-760.

4. Papamandjaris, A. (2000) Breakfast and learning in children: A review of the effects of breakfast on scholastic performance. Breakfast for Learning Canadian Living Foundation.

This article is courtesy of the Asian Food Information Council’s publication, Food Facts Asia Issue 30 – Raising Brighter Kids with Good Nutrition.

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