These Are The Best & Worst Foods For A Child's Brain

Photo: Sally Anscombe

As the associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, my work has been focused on the rigorous study of how our lifestyle choices—especially our diet—influence the health of our brains. Not just to prevent or mitigate Alzheimer’s but also to maintain and maximize cognitive power over a lifetime.

And as the proud mother of a 3-year-old daughter, I am especially focused on feeding my little girl the right foods, because a lifetime starts as soon as when we are born, and (as most parents have noticed!) our brains begin developing faster than everything else. That’s partly because the brain isn’t like the other organs in our body. In the rest of the body, our cells are born with a limited life span and need to be replaced. For example, we all shed hair every day, which is only to be replaced by new hair in a matter of days. We shed and renew skin cells every 10 to 30 days, and our red blood cells are replaced every four months—without any effort, and all without our ever noticing. Even our skeleton is renewed, at a rate of 10 percent per year.

Why protecting our brain cells is crucial for lifelong health.

But not our brains. Every cell in there is irreplaceable. By and large, we cannot grow new brain cells, a fact that every neuroscientist is drilled on as a student. It was recently discovered that some neurons continue to grow in the adult brain, through a process called neurogenesis—but the majority of brain cells stay with us for a lifetime, rendering them particularly susceptible to the wear and tear that naturally occurs with time. This is partly why diseases like Alzheimer’s are so devastating since they destroy neurons that to our knowledge are irreplaceable.

For your child's brain, the best thing you can do is simply to be pregnant. The vast majority of brain cells, or neurons, are formed during prenatal development, starting a few weeks after conception. By the time babies are born, they have all of the neurons they will ever have and, in fact, even more than they need. A baby’s brain contains more than 100 billion neurons, and if that seems like a lot, it is: It’s 20 percent more than you have. As your child reaches adolescence, about 20 percent of those booming neurons are discarded, leaving only the ones we will have for the rest of their lives.

Supporting the brain at an early age is essential.

So there’s plenty that needs to be done to prepare those precious neurons for a lifetime of use. Early brain support is essential. The first three years of a child’s life are especially critical for brain development: during this window of time, a baby figures out how to think, learn, behave, and explore, setting the stage for a fully formed set of cognitive skills.

Based on 15 years of neuroscience research on my part (for adults) and peer-reviewed research from my colleagues: For your child’s brain as for your own, food plays a critical role. Your baby needs the most nutrient-dense foods that you can get your hands on.

Every morning (together with her mother), my daughter drinks aloe juice, along with something called noni juice, an excellent (though not particularly palatable) source of anti-aging vitamins and minerals. She eats fish three to four times a week and will literally demand goji berries for a snack. This isn’t the typical baby diet, of course. The knowledge I’ve gained in the lab has reshaped our kitchen and our daughter’s diet.

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These are the best foods for the developing brain.

Photo: @Rimma_Bondarenko

Beyond the goji berry snacks, here’s a quick list of 10 nutrient-dense (and palatable) foods that will boost your child’s brain power:

1. Oats

Oats are rich in vitamin E, zinc, and B-complex vitamins. Its high-fiber content, coupled with a low-glycemic index, slowly releases glucose into the bloodstream, supplying the kids with a steady stream of energy.

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2. Berries

Berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, dark cherries, mulberries, and goji berries) are lunch-box-friendly and packed with vitamins that help boost memory and cognitive functioning. They are also great sources of natural sugars and fiber, a nutrient important for a healthy digestive system.

3. Apples and plums

Apples and plums. As all moms know only too well, kids often crave sweets. Apples and plums are excellent sources of antioxidants that help keep your child healthy and at the same time are soft, sweet, and full of fiber. Apple sauce and pureed plums make for great first solid foods to aid digestion and keep things moving.

4. Sweet potatoes

These colorful tubers are a great first food for babies, who tend to enjoy both the sweetness and creamy texture. They are packed with antioxidant beta-carotene and vitamin C, as well as iron and copper, which are all a brain must.

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5. Eggs

Eggs contain all the nutrients an embryo needs to grow. As such, they are packed with nutrients that support brain development, like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, lutein, and choline, a B vitamin that supports memory formation and concentration.

6. Yogurt

Breast milk is the best baby food, and yogurt (organic, plain, and unsweetened) is second best. The vitamins and fatty acids in yogurt support brain-cell growth and functioning, while probiotics support gut health, boosting your baby's immune system and behavior.

7. Fish

Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are exceptionally rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are literally what the human brain is made of—over 50 percent of the brain is fat, and most of that fat is omega-3 DHA, a special kind of fat found only in fish and shellfish.

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8. Greens

Vegetables that have rich, deep-green colors (e.g., spinach, chard, kale) are excellent sources of antioxidants and vitamins like folate, which help brain cells grow and stay healthy.

9. Avocado

Some say the fat composition of avocados is somewhat similar to that of breast milk. This creamy fruit is a rich source of healthy fats that promote blood flow to the brain.

10. Meat

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends meat as a first food because it's such a great source of protein, zinc, iron, and fat. Plus, a developing brain (which means anywhere between birth and adolescence) needs more saturated fat than an adult one.

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These are the worst foods for the developing brain.

Aside from specific nutrients, of all the criteria to hold for food, the quality of the ingredients may well be the most important part. Look at the food around you, and you will notice that packaged, processed, and refined foods are replacing real food. If you want your baby to grow healthy and smart, be sure to avoid the following foods as much as possible:

  1. Fast food, white sugar, white flour products (white bread, pasta, crackers, pies, cakes, and cookies)
  2. Soda, processed meats (bologna, pastrami, most deli meats, frankfurters, etc.)
  3. Processed cheese (American cheese, string mozzarella, etc.)

These foods are universally bad for you while also being high in calories yet offering little or no nutritional value.

Birthdays may be an especially destructive brain day for children: Birthday cakes harbor surprising levels of brain toxicity because ready-to-use frostings are piled with trans fats—the worst and most dangerous type of fat you can eat. On a last note, don't forget to feed your own brain. It's never too late to be kind to it and maximize its resilience, operations, and overall function. And for your child—it’s never too early.

Is a low-grain diet good for your brain? Find out here.

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