The Importance of Early Childhood Nutrition

About our contributor, Christine Reese, MS, RD: Christine has a Masters in Nutrition and has been a Registered Dietitian for 8 years. Although she is vegan and cooks accordingly, her 3-year-old son eats an omnivorous diet. Her background includes counseling on weight loss, diabetes, and kidney disease in adults. She loves talking about all things nutrition. 

 In the early days of U.S. nutrition goal setting, scientists and experts focused on preventing deficiencies and undernutrition. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, these remain important problems for children. Here at home, however, we are faced with different nutritional problems; problems that stem from too much junk food, available 24 hours a day, and available incredibly cheap.

More and more the evidence is mounting that what our preschoolers eat has a great impact on their cognitive development, physical growth, immunity, and even emotional well being. Depending on what our children eat, that impact can be positive or negative.

I believe I speak for all of us parents in that we want our children to be successful, now and throughout all their life stages. In order to stack the odds, we need to properly nourish them to provide for optimal cognitive development. Cognitive development encompasses brain growth related to learning, memory, perception, attention, thinking, and decision-making. Brain development happens rapidly during these preschool years, and what we feed our children has a direct influence.

Nutrients important for optimal cognitive development include iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, B-complex, omega-3 fatty acids, whole grain carbohydrates, and protein. What foods contain these nutrients? Foods higher in protein also tend to contain iron and zinc, and these comprise meat, poultry, fish, as well as the non-animal options legumes (peas, lentils, beans, peanuts/peanut butter), nuts, and seeds. Whole grain carbohydrates are good sources of B vitamins, and include whole grain rice, pasta, bread, quinoa, and oats. The one exception to this is vitamin B12, which is only found in animal foods and fortified plant foods. Thus, if your child doesn’t eat animal products regularly, you will want to supplement his/her diet with an age-appropriate B12 vitamin. Vitamins A and C, to a certain extent vitamin E, as well as a host of numerous phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants that affect health), fiber, and other vitamins and minerals are to be found in fruit and vegetables. Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds, and many vegetable oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in some fish, as well as walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, soybean foods, ground flax seeds, and chia seeds.

In order for our children’s learning capacities to be at their highest, breakfast is a must, and breakfast is a great way to incorporate protein, whole grains, fruit, and possibly nuts. For example, old-fashioned oatmeal made with milk or fortified soymilk (vanilla flavor is really yummy), topped with chopped nuts and/or dried fruit, and served with 100% juice provides a growing brain with protein, whole grains, nuts, and fruit, along with all the accompanying vitamins and minerals.

As a side note, although cow’s milk contains protein, calcium, and vitamin B12, it is a poor source of iron; if consumed in excess, it can actually inhibit iron absorption. Fortified soymilk, on the other hand, also contains protein, calcium, and vitamin B12; however, it does provide iron (and some omega-3 fatty acids).

Perhaps some of our children are not adventurous eaters. Perhaps they reject many of the foods that are best for cognitive development. In my next post, I’ll discuss ways we can help our preschoolers eat nutritious, brain and body boosting foods.

 

(1)Nyaradi, A., et al. The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 97. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3607807/

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognition

(3) Ross, A. Nutrition and its effects on academic performance. How can our schools improve? http://www.nmu.edu/sites/DrupalEducation/files/UserFiles/Files/Pre-Drupal/SiteSections/Students/GradPapers/Projects/Ross_Amy_MP.pdf

(4) Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center: Phytochemicals http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals.html

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