Can the right foods make your kid smarter?

We have all heard of so-called ‘brain food’ and every year when the exams loom on the horizon thousands and thousands of young people rush off the buy ‘brain power supplements’ to help their brains to cope.

What most of us tend to forget, is that nutrition plays a pivotal role during the periods when the brain and central nervous system (CNS) are developing in pregnancy and the first two years of life.

Read: Fatty foods like dope to the brain

In addition, our ‘little grey cells’ as Hercule Poirot, the great detective, referred to the brain and CNS, also require sustained and balanced nutrition throughout life if we are not to lose our faculties to be able to think and reason and remember.

In the current series of articles we will be discussing the various factors and influences, especially dietary ones, that affect our brains and mental performance.

The series of articles is based on a lecture presented by Sylvia Escott-Stump (2014), past President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the USA, which she called “No-Nonsense Nutrition for a Healthy Brain”.

The formative period

During the period prior to conception, the moment of conception and the 9 months of pregnancy, the healthy development of the brain and CNS can be negatively affected by:

 -  oxidative stress (smoking, pollutants, toxins)
 -  famine and hunger (which affect such a large proportion of our population due to food insecurity)
 -  viruses and infections, particularly if the mother’s immune system is compromised by poor diet and exposure to oxidative stress

Escott-Stump (2014), emphasises that it is also imperative to reduce maternal stress before and during pregnancy and when the mother is breastfeeding her baby.

Prenatal Disturbances
Disturbances that occur in the balance between a mother’s stress levels, her diet, external glucocorticoids plus corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), infections and inflammations, as well as exposure to drugs, can alter the size and the shape of structures within the grey matter and the white matter of the brain.

Read: Defects tied to prenatal painkiller use

In addition it has been discovered that such negative influences can determine the thickness of the cortex in the brain, and how efficiently the different parts of the brain connect with each other.

If such changes occur in the foetal brain, the baby may be born with developmental disorders including autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, affective disorders and even dementia at a later stage.

The Starved Brain

Lack of adequate energy and nutrient intake due to a poor diet are among the most potent influences that can determine a child’s mental future.
If a mother is starved because of famine, poverty or eating disorders (e.g. anorexia nervosa) then the first thing that suffers is the development of the brain of the unborn child she is carrying.

One of the most important things we can do to ensure that our population develops to its full capability is to ensure that all children are born to well-fed mothers who receive adequate amounts of energy and all the vital nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and omega fatty acids before conception and during pregnancy.

The upsurge in teenage pregnancies in this country bodes ill for the future development of our children. So many of these young women are seriously undernourished because of economic constraints, poor education, reliance on fast foods with a very low nutrient density or disordered eating patterns. The latter can be due to attempts to lose weight or eating disorders including anorexia, orthorexia, and bulimia.

Read: Eating disorders and pregnancy complications

The Brain Runs on Glucose!

It is important for everyone to keep in mind that the human brain makes great demands on our metabolism. It uses the following:

 -  15% of the cardiac output is directed to the brain
 -  20% of the total oxygen - 3 minutes deprivation of oxygen can lead to brain damage
 -  25% of the carbohydrate our bodies require

To ensure that the brain of your baby develops normally it is a good idea for you to supply your unborn child with sufficient energy, carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which make up a balanced diet.

Get your weight issues sorted out before you fall pregnant - both overweight, underweight and eating disorders and when you are pregnant avoid fast foods with their low nutrient density and don’t touch alcohol to prevent Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Read more:
10 tips to get kids healthy
Why your brain needs fat
Does my child need probiotics?

Text copyright: Dr I V van Heerden, May 2014

Escott-Stump S (2014). No-Nonsense Nutrition for a Healthy Brain. Paper presented at: Nutritional Solutions CNE Event, Johannesburg, 11 April 2014

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