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by Suzannah Olivier
The human brain is pretty amazing, but most fascinating of all is a child's brain. In the first few years the brain cells are linking up and making billions of connections.
At this young age children are like sponges, absorbing information at a rate that is truly fantastic. In fact, a three-year-old has a brain that is twice as active as an adult's. This activity creates a huge metabolic demand on resources. In an adult, a fifth of energy is diverted to the brain. Because children's brains are relatively much larger than an adult's (as a ratio of body size) this increases the demands made on energy levels considerably. This is one reason that the calories a child needs, again compared to adult/body ratio, is high.
There are several aspects of diet that impact on the nervous system, and thus on our ability to concentrate, learn, balance behaviour and have the energy to enjoy life. By choosing a varied diet, that includes the foods and nutrients mentioned below, you will be doing your best to help your child optimise his abilities. If your child has particular learning or behavioural difficulties, you may want to apply this information with a little more determination.
Fatty Acids Fish has a well deserved reputation as a brain food and science is firmly backing up the old wives' adage to eat more of it. The fatty acids contained in oily fish, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachadonic acid), are essential components of the brain, eyes and nervous system. DHA, which makes up to a third of the dry weight of the brain, is as important to it as calcium is to the bones. These fatty acids are important throughout life, but have a particular benefit during a child's first few years, when the brain is still linking-up neurons (a process called arborisation). DHA is also needed to help build the fatty layer around the nerves, known as myelin sheath, which speeds up nerve transmissions. The only time we manufacture DHA and AA in our bodies, however, is when mothers produce breast milk, which underscores its essential status for the infant's brain. Children of earlier centuries would then have had much more DHA than our children get today because more were breastfed and diets also favoured higher DHA levels.
You should introduce oily fish at an early stage so that your children get used to eating it Ideally, you should introduce oily fish at an early stage so that your children get used to eating it. Only 16 per cent of children in the UK eat oily fish (and a lot of that is probably canned tuna, which is low in these vital fats). One eminent scientist has stated that he thinks that this deficiency in children's diet is linked to poor mental development and behavioural problems in our society. If your child will not eat fish, and has learning problems, it is well worth getting him to take a fish oil supplement as an alternative. Another option for fish-shy children are the 'functional' foods which are now finding their way onto the market. Eggs, bread and yoghurts that are enriched with DHA (they have a symbol on the package saying as much) are now readily available.
Iron This is the most commonly deficient mineral in children, with 84 per cent of under-4s affected, and 57 per cent of over 4s. Iron is needed for building red blood cells and reduced levels impacts on cognitive skills. Iron deficiency is frequently caused by children being introduced to cow's milk too early, instead of being given fortified infant formula. Other causes include exclusively breast feeding for more than six months (it is important to introduce foods at this stage as, after this time, children need more iron than breast milk alone can provide), vegetarian diets lacking iron, and also junk food diets.
Zinc This mineral is essential for all growth processes, including those of the brain. The diets of 72 per cent of children under the age of four are low in this mineral and it is important to include good sources on a regular basis. These are similar to those for iron, and include meat, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds. In adults, low zinc-status is linked to mental ill-health, including depression, nervousness and anorexia. If your child is listless or depressed you may want to ensure a good dietary intake.
Selenium This mineral, which is needed in only the tiniest amounts, is linked to balance moods. The best food sources are Brazil nuts, as well as wholegrains, fish, shellfish, meat, rice and seaweed.
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