Surprising Nutrition Tips to Help Your Child’s Brain Health

March is brain health month! We all know that the brain is an extremely important organ. It’s the one organ that is involved in every aspect of your child’s body including their vital systems (cardiovascular, respiratory, immune and hormone). There are so many things that impact brain development and brain health throughout our child’s life, but proper nourishment is a key factor at all stages! Getting the right balance of essential nutrients is especially important when the brain is rapidly growing and developing in early childhood!

Keep reading for some unexpected nutrition tips that will help your child optimize their brain health during these key years of development:

Serve Fermented (or “living” foods) Foods More Often

Fermented foods contain microorganisms like yeast or bacteria that convert carbohydrates in the food to alcohols/acids which act as a natural preservative and impart a tart/sour taste. Interesting enough, fermented foods offer many benefits to our health, particularly when it comes to our gut (which is connected to our brain). Some common fermented foods that we can serve to our kids include kefir and yogurt, but there are also fermented plant-based yogurts, pickled vegetables (like Kimchi), miso or tempeh (fermented soybean patty). Fermented foods are often thought of as foods that contain probiotics or “healthy bacteria”, however, not all fermented foods contain enough live probiotic-type bacteria to be labeled a “probiotic food” based on Health Canada regulations.

So, why serve our kids fermented foods if they don’t always have enough of those healthy bacteria? When live microorganisms complete their fermentation process in these foods, they produce healthy by-products including (but not limited to):

  • Short chain fatty acids that help to reduce inflammation protecting and strengthening both gut and brain cells
  • B vitamins that are essential in brain health and development
  • Lactic acid that reduces inflammation in the gut, improves digestion and absorption of nutrients and helps strengthen the immune system
  • Stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria to out-compete harmful bacteria in the gut, that produce neuroactive metabolites (benefiting brain and neuron function)

A fun way to remember this is to aim to offer your kiddos “something living” every day or as often as you are able! Here are some examples:

  • Yogurt added to oatmeal, smoothies, or as a snack topped with fruit
  • Kefir added into smoothies, or instead of milk at supper, or added at snack time
  • Sauerkraut adds a pleasing sour flavor kick to sandwiches, creamy mashed potatoes, tuna or egg salad, creamy pasta dishes, on top of avocado toast or just enjoy it on its own!

Like previously mentioned, probiotic foods are different from fermented foods in that they contain enough known beneficial bacteria (that are still living) in a recommended amount to be labeled a true “probiotic containing food”. Probiotic foods offer similar health benefits to fermented foods as these beneficial bacteria also produce substances that fight off harmful bacteria and help strengthen the gut lining, improving immune function and digestion. Probiotics have also been linked to improved mental health and possible reduced risk of depression! The Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada contains a list of food products that have enough living beneficial bacteria to be labeled a probiotic food.

Be “Responsive” in Your Feeding Routine

Responsive feeding (which is part of “responsive parenting”, is when parents are highly attuned and sensitive to their child’s needs, internal states and emotions (when it comes to food). Evidence shows that the responsive parenting style is associated with improvements in many areas of childhood development including cognitive and behavioral health. Responsive feeding is when parents are highly attuned to their children’s hunger and fullness cues, and respond accordingly.

In your feeding routine, this might look like offering more food when your baby or older child signals that they are still hungry through body language or simply asking for more. On the other hand, if you baby or older child show signals or verbally states that they are “done” or their tummy is full, the response would then be to stop offering more food.

It is important to remember to respect your child’s hunger and fullness, even when you think they shouldn’t still be hungry, OR that they should be eating more. This helps them to develop confidence in their ability to self-regulate their food intake day-to-day and build a healthy relationship with food in the long-run. Responding to your child in a quick and caring way, communicates to them that you love, support and trust them. This builds their emotional well-being, and promotes positive influences on brain development and mental health.
Understanding your child’s needs and responding thoughtfully with nurturing intent will protect your child’s brain from negative stress and give them the best chance at reaching their brain health potential!

Prioritize Hydration!

Drinking enough water is a big focus during the hot summer months, when our body tends to lose more fluid in the heat, whether it’s from more activity or just sweating to stay cool. But did you know that kids actually lose more body water than adults no matter what the temperature is? Children have a higher surface area to mass ratio, meaning that they sweat more per pound of body weight when compared to adults. This, compounded with the fact that children may not always recognize when they are thirsty puts them at a higher risk for dehydration during all months of the year!

So, why is hydration so important for brain health? Well, first of all we know that the body is about 70% water (including the brain). This means that getting enough fluid throughout the day is key to proper brain cell function. In fact, research shows that when kids are dehydrated, unwanted side effects on brain function start to show up:

  • They have a lower mood than usual
  • They have a hard time concentrating
  • They become more sluggish/ tired
  • They have a poor short-term memory

On the other hand, if children are properly hydrated, they have better memory, attention-span and overall cognitive function! Here are some easy ideas to help your kids stay hydrated:

  • Offer high water content produce (fruits and vegetables) at every meal and snack (as often as you can)- frozen produce and fruit canned in its own juice are great options when fresh isn’t available!
  • Send your kids to daycare with a fun refillable water bottle that they will look forward to drinking out of!
  • Offer smoothies as a breakfast or snack option.

Whether it is incorporating more fermented foods, revamping your feeding routine to be more responsive, or prioritizing hydration, any one of these tips will help improve your child’s brain (and overall) health!