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Nutrition and Your Child's Brain

This article can be found in the Winter 2010 edition of Offspring MagazineThis article was prepared by Ngala for Offspring Magazine, WA’s own family lifestyle magazine.  Visit

We all know diet and nutrition is critical for our children's early years  to set them on the path to good health for the future but what exactly are the ingredients?

First of all, food is not the only component to a healthy start in life; regular opportunities to sleep, to be in a safe, secure environment and  be provided with lots of love all contribute to this ideal mix.

All infants need milk in the first years of life. Therefore breast milk has high levels of fats, including cholesterol (to grow brain tissue), protein (more whey than casein to grow body tissue), micro nutrients -  vitamins and minerals as well as a range of live factors, immunological and pro biotic which help to establish a healthy immune system. Formula milks can recreate some of these complex components, but not all.

While solids are introduced, breast feeding can still be continued as there are many benefits of breast milk past the 1st year of life. What is important to remember at this time is that low fat diets are not suitable for babies. In fact as the brain is composed of 60% fatty tissue a proportion of that being cholesterol this is not the time to be skimping on healthy fat foods such as avocado, coconut, oily fish, butter, olive oil and full fat dairy products. Fats that are to be avoided are hydrogenated or 'trans' fats found in long shelf life  processed foods baked, fried, or cheap margarines.

We may have heard the term 'essential fatty acids' in the media in connection with brain development. This class of fats found in abundance in oily/fatty fish is one of the building blocks for cellular brain growth and essential as the body cannot synthesise it on it's own. Unfortunately most of us do not get enough of this nutrient either we are following a low fat diet, no fish or seafood or simply because in recent decades it is not as prevalent in the general food chain as it once was. It has been shown in many studies to be implicated in IQ level, general attention and eye health. When it is sometimes difficult to feed children fish such as sardines, mackerel or salmon, and with the additional advice that amounts of larger fish like tuna or sword fish are likely to be contaminated with levels of environmental mercury, it seems that many parents are finding the only way to 'plug the gap' of this potential deficiency is to use a supplemental dose of quality fish oil. They are often flavoured with fruit extracts to make them more pleasant to take.

Strange but true, Australians as a whole may not be getting sufficient Vitamin D. This deficiency is particularly important for children's bone health but also for mood elevation. Deficiency in Vitamin D has been connected with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often more experienced in northern latitudes. Do we get enough sun exposure in sunny Australia? Apparently not, especially the younger age group which may be subject to more time indoors, covered up and applied with sunscreen. It is really beneficial for overall health and also brain function if we allow 20 minutes a day, face and arms uncovered and un-sun-screened in the sunlight so that our skin can convert the dietary vitamin D. This is even more important to darker skinned people as the time needed to do the same job is 6 times as long.

Ever been to a children's party and the kids are going berserk? Is it the sugar? Is it the colours? Is it the noise?! Well, according to a UK study carried out in 150+ 3 year olds, a combination of common additives including colours and preservatives will produce negative behavioural effects in all children studied not just those with underlying attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. This outcome is what parents have long suspected, but it is the first time the effects have actually been studied. Clearly we want to avoid processed foods for children,  but the main culprits are the artificial colours, sweeteners,  preservatives, and flavour enhancers coincidentally found in many foods marketed to children!

Sugar cannot be left out of the equation. Our sugar consumption has never been higher, with each person now consuming on average 80kg per year of the stuff compared to a few kilos 200 years ago. Brains especially young children's use a phenomenal amount of energy 20% of daily intake, however, consuming regular amounts of sugary snacks or drinks can send our blood sugar haywire. For children that means mood swings, temper tantrums and an inability to concentrate or relax enough to sleep soundly. While it is a good idea to reduce the overall amount of sugar in our child's diet remember to combine it with food containing protein and fat so that the sugar creates less of an 'emergency' blood sugar response. So, a snack of cheese cubes raisins and apple, followed by some jelly snakes- while containing a reasonable amount of 'dietary sugar' will have a completely different effect on the brain than eating the jelly snakes on their own. Above all start the day with a good protein based breakfast eggs on toast or porridge! This will give the brain something to work on and the sustained energy will match the needs of their natural rhythm high needs in the morning declining in the late afternoon.

Did you know our digestion and appetite benefits from sociable eating occasions? Having several opportunities a week to regularly eat around the table as a family will boost your child's enjoyment of eating and create valuable time for conversation which fires their imagination and imprints positive associations from mealtimes.

Include these foods to optimise your kid's brain health:

Eggs, quality unprocessed meat and fish, whole grains  a wide range of fruits and vegetables raw or steamed, whole milk, cheese and naturally cultured yoghurt, nuts and nut pastes (watch small children - choking hazard), legumes and quality oils and fats. For sweet treats quality dark chocolate (70%+) is actually beneficial to health containing flavanoids and antioxidants. Try less well known ingredients like quinoa grain (mix it with rice),  chia seeds (high levels of omega 3) or sprouted / spelt grain breads. This list of nutrient dense foods will fill your child up, boost their brain function and stabilise mood and concentration.

Avoid these types of foods:

Foods with artificial sweeteners or colouring, High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) Sugary fruit drinks, colas, energy drinks and juice, refined white sugars and white breads, trans fats and partially-hydrogenated oils, processed snack foods, crackers, chips, crisps and luncheon meats sausages, puffed commercial cereals (most of them) these ingredients and foods take away valuable nutrients from the body and take the place of healthy food required in the diet.

However, we all live in the real world where every day life can be hectic and stressful. Eating whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods 80% of the time will protect our health for the 20% of the occasions where convenience, parties and indulgences take over!

By Stephanie Fairbairn (Nutritionist & Educator)

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