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Brain food for children: You are what you eat

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

That well-known mantra ‘You are what you eat’ should be heeded even more by parents and nursery practitioners caring for young children as food has a huge impact on the growing brain, according to a leading food expert.

Katharine Tate known as The Food Teacher spoke at the Childcare Expo, saying: “Most of the connections in the brain are laid down by the age of two. In adolescence your brain goes through a lot of pruning and from the age of 25, the brain stops growing and you lose one brain cell every second.

“We know that 50 per cent of the body we get is down to genetics and 50 per cent is down to what we eat and the exercise we do.

“The brain takes priority over all the other organs in the body and because it is so active it also creates a lot of waste.”

Due to all this activity carried out by the brain, she claims that contrary to popular belief, low fat food is not good and she never advises it for children.


She recommends eating food that is rich in zinc such as meats like lean beef and poultry and dairy products including yogurt and cheese. Nuts and beans, such as chick peas, cashews and almonds also contain zinc, which is important for the hippocampus – a region of the brain linked with learning and memory.

“Low zinc levels have been linked with fussy eaters and children with ADHD. Adolescents can also be low in zinc,” she says. Other good food for the brain is food in the omega 3 groups such as cold-water fish like salmon, as well as flaxseed and walnuts which are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 is important for keeping the myelin sheath really flexible so it can send messages to the brain, according to Ms Tate.

Vitamin D is another nutrient which many people are deficient in and is also important for protecting the myelin sheath. Foods high in vitamin D include fish oils, fatty fish, mushrooms, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Vitamin D is also naturally made by your body when you are exposed to sunshine.


She also highlights the power of magnesium which has brain boosting nutrients and says a lot of people are deficient in this. High magnesium foods include dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, yogurt, bananas and dried fruit.

Iodine is also very important for children’s metabolism and is important for growth. Foods which are high in iodine are sea vegetables but getting children to eat these isn’t the easiest thing. Ms Tate suggests that one way is to get children at the nursery involved in making sushi.

Flavanols are also very good for the brain as is quercetin which is in raw onions. “It is very hard to get children to eat raw onion and so far the only thing I have found that children will eat is guacamole,” says Ms Tate.

When working with children, it is important to keep children’s sugar levels very stable. If you have highs and lows this can lead to children being hyper and then having no energy and being listless.

Other key things to think about are protein and fibre – so food like scrambled egg on wholemeal toast is good.

“Also when you give them fruit at nursery, give them protein at the same time such as pumpkin seeds or a piece of cheese to stop their blood sugar levels soaring.

“Hydration is so important and enough sleep is fundamental, while exercise gets oxygen up to the brain.

“If parents send their children to nursery with a pack lunch, it is a good idea to send a letter out giving suggestions about what food is good for them to have in their pack lunches,” she says.

For nursery practitioners who are worried about children’s brain health, The Food Teacher recommends talking to the parent about checking out their iron levels.

A key piece of advice for parents and carers is that children should be going to the toilet every 24 hours for optimal digestive health. Otherwise children are keeping toxins in their bodies.

Ten Steps for Healthy Toddlers

The Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF), a group of paediatricians, dietitians, health visitors and psychologists, believes that improving the diet of toddlers should be considered a public health priority. It says that healthy eating at this age is not just important for growth and development, it can also shape their food preferences in later life.

The ITF has issued a booklet called Ten Steps for Healthy Toddlers.

The ten steps are:

• Eat together as a family and make mealtimes relaxed, happy occasions

• Decide what food to give young children but let them decide how much to eat

• Offer food from all five food groups

• Have a routine and offer three meals and two to three snacks a day

• Offer six to eight drinks a day

• Give vitamin A and D supplements daily

• Respect young children’s tastes and preferences – don’t force feed

• Reward the child with attention – never give food or drink as a treat or reward

• Limit fried food, crisps, packet snacks, pastries, cakes and biscuits and avoid fizzy drinks, fruit juice, tea and coffee

• Encourage physical activity for at least three hours a day and about 12 hours sleep

More information about healthy eating can be found at

To find out more about The Food teacher go to


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