A child needs a healthy diet to build a healthy brain

 A nutrient-rich diet is essential for children to develop optimal brain function. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health followed the dietary patterns of nearly 4,000 children from birth for over eight years. The study found that toddlers who ate a nutrient-rich diet full of fruits and vegetables had higher IQ scores when they reached 8 years of age compared to the toddlers who consumed processed foods full of fat and sugar.1 The foods that the toddlers ate had a dramatic long term effect on their brain function. 

Nutrition plays an important role in brain development during all stages of childhood.

Students. Flickr: knittymarieWhereas the brain grows fastest in the first few years of life, it continues to develop throughout adolescence.2 Thus, it is important that children of all ages consume a high nutrient diet to ensure adequate brain development. Breastfeeding mothers who themselves eat a high nutrient diet pass on those nutrients to their children, improving their children’s cognitive development.Children who are breastfed past their first birthday have higher IQ scores than children who are raised on formula.3 A greater proportion of an infant’s diet made up of breast milk also correlates to greater brain volume in adolescence.4 This is due in part to the DHA content of breast milk, since DHA is a major component of brain cell membranes. Breast milk is not only an important source of DHA, but it provides many other essential nutrients for the developing brain, as well as promoting the health of the immune and respiratory systems and supporting overall childhood health. 5-7 Upon the introduction of solid foods, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with higher IQ and better memory skills when children reach 4 years of age.8  In school-age children, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as increased cholesterol intake have been linked to diminished intelligence and poor academic performance.9-10

Children who eat a nutrient-dense diet are providing their brains with supplementary antioxidant support.

The brain uses the most oxygen and produces most energy of any part of body, and thus it is highly susceptible to oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress is inflammation caused by uncontrolled free radicals.  Free radicals can propagate throughout the cell, damaging the cell and even lead to cell death. Cells have their own antioxidant defense enzymes to process the free radicals, but they are not 100% efficient and we must use dietary antioxidants to process the rest.11 The brain’s antioxidant defenses becoming overwhelmed is one of the main mechanisms of brain aging, and this has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.12-13 Thus, a healthy, antioxidant rich diet is especially beneficial for the brain and is likely involved in the association between plant food consumption and higher IQ scores.

The foods children consume early in life provide them with the raw materials to construct their brains and ultimately supply their brain power. A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and seeds is the only way to ensure children get the array of phytochemicals, antioxidants, fatty acids and other micronutrients to adequately supply their growing brains.



1Northstone K, Joinson C, Emmett P, Ness A, Paus T. Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age? A population-based cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2011 Feb 7. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21300993.

2Porter JN, Collins PF, Muetzel RL, Lim KO, Luciana M. Associations between cortical thickness and verbal fluency in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Neuroimage. 2011 Jan 19. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21255662.

3Mortensen EL, Michaelsen KF, Sanders SA, Reinisch JM. The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. JAMA. 2002 May 8;287(18):2365-71.

4 Isaacs EB, Fischl BR, Quinn BT, et al. Impact of breast milk on intelligence quotient, brain size, and white matter development. Pediatr Res. 2010 Apr;67(4):357-62.

5 Ladomenou F, Moschandreas J, Kafatos A, et al. Protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infections during infancy: a prospective study. Arch Dis Child. 2010 Dec;95(12):1004-8.

6Katzen-Luchenta J. The declaration of nutrition, health, and intelligence for the child-to-be. Nutr Health. 2007;19(1-2):85-102.

7University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (2010, November 1). Breast milk study furthers understanding of critical ingredients. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2010/10/101027145849.htm

8Gale CR, Martyn CN, Marriott LD, et al. Dietary patterns in infancy and cognitive and neuropsychological function in childhood.  J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;50(7):816-23.

9Schoenthaler SJ, Bier ID, Young K, Nichols D, Jansenns S. The effect of vitamin-mineral supplementation on the intelligence of American schoolchildren: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2000 Feb;6(1):19-29. PubMed PMID: 10706232.

10Zhang J, Hebert JR, Muldoon MF. Dietary fat intake is associated with psychosocial and cognitive functioning of school-aged children in the United States. J Nutr. 2005 Aug;135(8):1967-73.

11Kidd, Parris M. "Neurodegeneration from Mitochondrial Insufficiency: Nutrients, Stem Cells, Growth Factors, and Prospects for Brain Rebuilding Using Integrative Management." Alternative Medicine Review 10 (2005): 268-293.

12Aliev G, Smith MA, Seyidova D, et al. The role of oxidative stress in the pathophysiology of cerebrovascular lesions in Alzheimer’s Disease. Brain Pathol 2002;12:21-35.

13Barja G. Free radicals and aging. Trends Neurosci 2004;27:595-600.

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Comments (14) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Wendy (Healthy Girl's Kitchen) - February 22, 2011 1:48 PM

This is such a difficult subject for me to read about. While I have control over what I eat and some influence over my oldest child's diet, when it comes to my youngest children (ages 6 and 3) I feel like almost a complete failure. Especially with my willful 6 year old. Clearly, I know that she is not getting the nutrients that she needs. Her diet consists of anything with white processed sugar and/or flour that she can get her hands on. The bright spot is that she does eat strawberries every day (and they are costing me a fortune . . . ). I'm at wits end. The only way she will eat a vegetable is if I bribe her with sweets. She won't even eat banana soft serve. Suggestions anyone?

Michael - February 22, 2011 2:33 PM


The only thing I can think of is to keep all junk foods out of the house so the only choices she has are healthy. When she gets hungry enough, she'll eat whatever food is available. It is hard at first to reset the tastebuds, but the only way it happens is complete abstinance from sugar.

Mia Z - February 22, 2011 3:43 PM

I like to think that if I went ahead and procreated, I'd save my kid from all those harmful addictions I have to deal with. He/She'd be a SUPERHUMAN thanks to nutrional excellence (and my genetic good looks, haha)

But I know what most parents reading this must be thinking... easier said than done!

Kim - February 22, 2011 3:57 PM

Suggestions.....if you can afford it and/or have a generous close relative that is going to buy your family an expensive gift anyway....a Vitamix or Blend-tech is most helpful.....making green smoothies was the way I got my kids hooked on veggies. They don't like cooked veggies, but they eat raw lettuce and spinach all the time now. They also eat kale chips....lots of recipes for kale chips are online. Also, in the Vitamix...I blend up pears, carrots, and a sliver of lemon to the consistency of applesauce and we call that "Parrot Sauce". Given a choice, my kids eat white bread, but we don't keep it in the house so they only get that choice when out of the house. I weaned them from white bread, to whole wheat blend, to 100 percent whole wheat, and now to Ezekiel (it took 2 years to progress). One more suggestion is frozen blueberries mixed with frozen peas......if there's not another veggie on the plate, they have to eat frozen peas along with blueberries. Frozen peas seem texturally more pleasing to my children's palate. Dr. Furhman's book "Disease Proof Your Child" has lots of suggestions to weed out the processed food and replace it with high nutrient foods, or if you can't afford the book or get it at the library, he has audio interviews on the web (maybe on this site or on youtube) with his lectures about helping children like yours to eat a healthy diet....not bringing the processed food in the house in the first place would be step A.....after some possible tantrums on the child's part he/she will eventually eat what you serve them....giving a variety of nutritious options instead of just 1 "you must eat this" item is helpful. And the rewards being things like strawberries, blueberries, dates, etc... We are far from nutritarian in our house with many SAD foods still consumed...but we are closer to nutritarian every day as the SAD foods get replaced with better options one by one.

Oh, and about the expense....it is more expensive to buy fresh fruits and veggies, BUT it pays off with less sick visits to the doctor and long term health....Just finished reading an article in a parenting magazine today how Americans spend the least amount of their income on food compared to other developed countries, yet we are one of the sickest developed nations in the world....so SAD if you ask me.

Hope this helps.

Peta - February 22, 2011 4:08 PM

Wendy i had this problem so a few months ago I just cleared everything from the house. There was nothing to eat except Eat for Health foods. There was some tears and anger. They didn't starve, they eventually ate. I made sure i had Dr Fuhrmans popems and healthy chocolate cake ready. I blended vegetable soups. I made delicous frozen banana, vanilla and nut milk smoothies for after school. After about a week I introduced Green smoothies. That first one my 10 year old son nursed until about 3pm but when he saw i was serious he drank it and now he drinks them straight down, a glass 3 times per day. As a parent its up to you. At 6 they will end up doing what ever you let them do. I also suggest you read Dr Fuhrmans Disease Proof your child. It really helps. Good luck!

Niki - February 22, 2011 4:35 PM

Two things: First, while I want to believe all of these findings point to Nutritarianism being The Answer To Health, these cohort studies seem a bit weak. Especially since I've not even been able to read the first study mentioned in the article. The very first thing a nay-sayer will point out is that lots of variables are linked with dietary choices (like socio-economic status, for example) that could be causing these IQ numbers. And, of course, lots of people poo-poo IQ numbers anyway. Cohort studies are weak science when you're trying to sway hard-headed people who are convinced that I am going to kill my children by not feeding them eggs (or cheese other whatever else they're on about at the time). Of course, ask them for an ethical alternative methodology for studying diet's effects on children....

Second: A comment to Wendy:
My oldest daughter is almost 4 and we are struggling with her eating as well (our 1-year-old twins are Nutritarian pros, nursing 6-8 times per day and eating healthy food in between). She doesn't have access to white flour or any sugar other than date sugar, but she consistently chooses the least healthy foods we have available (except green smoothies, which she does like). So she'll want cereal (salt-free, sugar-free organic brown rice 'crispies' with almond milk) for breakfast; a plain almond or cashew butter sandwich without any fruit (it's sprouted wheat bread and everything is salt and sugar free, but still, no plants) for lunch, and just plain tofu for dinner. We can get her to eat what the rest of us are eating only with a struggle, and must feed her every bite. She hates all fruit except mangoes and bananas. In the past, when we've tried to just let her get hungry enough to eat something healthy, she'll happily go all day without eating, or eat just a banana. So I feel you, Wendy!

We got her the Mitch Spinach book, and while she loves it, she's not really old enough to get it. In fact, sometimes she asks for pizza because she sees some of the kids in the book eating it as an example of what not to do! Besides, she already loves green smoothies. It's raw veggies, fruit, and the high-MANDI stews the rest of the family subsist on that we have trouble getting her to eat.

We've decided to just treat her food choices as any other behavioral issue and started the Accountable Kids program. So far it's gone surprisingly well. In addition to _asking_ to brush her teeth, she chose to eat an avocado for lunch today instead of a nut-butter sandwich. We're hopeful that it's less about the food than it is about the general struggle for power lots of kids go through at that age.

Carry - February 22, 2011 4:48 PM

Wendy: Have you read Disease Proof Your Child? Dr. F has good suggestions for feeding picky children. When kids are 6 years old, YOU control what they eat, not them. Make good foods available and they will eat them if they're hungry. Don't bribe, just don't make anything with sugar or flour available. Then she doesn't have a choice. She might pitch a fit and go on a hunger strike for a day or so, but when she's hungry enough, she'll start eating the variety of nutritious food you provide.

Johanna - February 22, 2011 7:01 PM

We recently bit the bullet and bought a Vitamix. Wow! Nothing improved my 21-year old son's diet like that did. He uses it more than I do. He puts romaine lettuce in with almond milk, raw nuts, bananas, a tad of vanilla bean, and a great variety of fruit. Possibly those with children's diet problems could let the children "help" pick out the fruit/ingredients for smoothies. They might be more interested if they "help"--["guided" help, of course--"shall we put some *strawberries* in? Mmmmm!" etc.])

When he was two and had twisted his arm, a doctor held out a sucker for my son to take only if he took it with the twisted arm. I told her he does not know what a sucker is, which accounted for him not reaching for it, and that "I am not that kind of mother." She replied, "Well I AM that kind of doctor!"

Luckily for me, my children led the way for me to vegetarianism and eventual veganism. (My son decided he was a vegan when he was around 10-12 and visited a farm at which it was his job to kill the chicken for the meal. He has been a vegan ever since.) My daughter had been after me to eliminate milk from my diet and I finally saw the light. I think it was she who brought home the book, "The China Study," which really initiated the change in my life. After that eye-opening book, I read "Eat to Live."

Ginger - February 22, 2011 8:53 PM

Wow! I never allowed any of my children to rule our home the way some of you describe. I had a large family; the youngest in almost 20. I breastfed them all for 12-18 months. When we started them on solids, we began with green veggies, then orange veggies, then fruit. Never used baby food. The rice cereal my mom brought by looked vile. I made one meal for everyone. The children could choose if they wanted to eat or not. If they didn't eat the meal, they could wait till the next one to eat. Otherwise fruits, veggies, bean dips, and nut butter were available for snacking. My kids learned quickly that going hungry isn't fun. They ate what I cooked for the most part. Over the years the content of the meals got healthier but has always included salad and veggies and fruit. They still love and eat them today. Also everyone of them is adventurous in their eating choices. The collective motto seems to be try it once, because it might become a favorite. We never ever used bribes or rewards to get them to eat. Natural consequences took care of that. Some of my adult children are following my example and have no trouble with food. A couple are following a different path with mealtime battles being the norm.

Wendy (Healthy Girl's Kitchen) - February 23, 2011 6:56 AM

Thank you to EVERYONE for your suggestions. Yes, I do have a vitamix and I use it multiple times a day! I think I have a particularly difficult child, but I will keep trying everything that has been mentioned here.

Rick - February 23, 2011 12:23 PM

Dr. Nutrient rich is not the same as nutrient dense. Vegetables and fruits are all Nutrient Rich when compared to everything we eat. However, the nutrient density of a tomato (grown commerially) can be totally different than the tomato grown organically in a minerialized soil. Nutrient density can be measured by a refractometer and the quality is measured as BRIX. The higher the BRIX reading the more nutrient dense the fruit or vegetable is,under 5 is poor and excellent is 12+. Without a nutrient dense soil, there cannot be a nutrient dense fruit or vegetable.

Eileen - February 23, 2011 12:35 PM

I understand the difficulty in getting kids to eat healthy and have basically had to go with the all or nothing strict approach. I buy no junk food, no milk, no meat, and no sodas. We used to have gobs of junk in the house, things I thought at the time "weren't that bad" like pretzels, corn chips, and jars of salsa. Also we had diet sodas, yogurts, and string cheese for those tied me over snacks. NOw I make my own fresh salsa, buy only organic corn chips, and we make lots of banana and walnut "ice cream". I also just am very straightfoward with my daughter about the unhealthiness of meat, dairy, and sugar. I preach daily, expecially at the dinner table about how healthy food will keep her strong and smart throughout her life and eating fruits and veges will help her grow from a beautiful young girl into a gorgeous young lady.

I also involve my daughter, who is 10, in the prep work for our garden this year. She's involved in every aspect from the composting of kitchen scraps, to the turning of the soil. Last year she had her own watermelon plants which we enjoyed through the summer. It helps to have kids be part of the process. I gives them a better appreciation for the food on their plate.

Grety - February 25, 2011 12:15 PM

My kids, 8 and 11, love fruits and veggies. They know what food is good for your brain and your body and what isn't. I just keep repeating it over and over and over. If it doesn't come from the parents, it's not going to come from anywhere else. I try hard to keep healthy unprocessed food in the house. It requires a lot of attention but it's one of the most important things I can do. It is about a total change of habit. And a habit that one has had for years takes a long time to change. I am lucky because my husband plants a huge garden every year; he already has his seeds started in the basement and my kids are involved with that too. The veggie garden is one of the best parts of summer!

Beth - February 27, 2011 11:55 PM

Wendy, you might want to check out this website http://childrenandbabiesnoteating.com/ . It really helped me with my daughter who not only wouldn't eat healthy food, but just wasn't gaining weight. It has a lot of information about why kids won't eat and what you can do about it. For my daughter, we needed to go to a feeding therapist.

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