When we first become parents, the list of what we should do and what we shouldn’t do for our children seems long and insurmountable. It can be hard to wade through all of the advice, well-meaning or otherwise, which comes at us from all sides. One of the most important stages of parenting comes starting your baby on solid foods for the first time, and although we all want to feed our children the best and healthiest food possible, it can be hard to know where to start.
Today, we’re going to break down some of the best and worst foods for children’s developing brains, and how we can use these food items to ensure that our child’s brain health is support from infancy into their teen years.
One of the best and easiest foods that you can give your child, especially when they’re first learning to eat solid foods on their own, is oats. Oats are rich in glucose, which is the basic fuel that ensures our brain is able to operate at peak functionality. Oats help keep our glucose level steady, ensuring that we don’t suddenly have a spike where our blood sugar levels rise and suddenly drop, leading to short periods of high energy followed by low-energy crash.
Oats and oatmeal can also help lower our cholesterol levels — something’s that not usually of concern for a child, but fat and cholesterol have both been linked to a buildup of fatty deposits in the blood, which have been linked to a higher potential for brain damage.
Another food that’s ideal for brain health that happens to go extremely well with oats are berries — any kind of berries will do. These sweet little gems have lots of vitamins and minerals that will help with brain functioning and cognition well into old age. Generally, darker berries contain more nutrients than lighter ones. They also have high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that extracts from both strawberries and blueberries can help improve memory function. For kids, berries are a great snack because they’re portable, and easy to grab with little fingers. You can also buy them frozen and blend them into smoothies using other healthy ingredients like spinach and yogurt.
For many years, the phrase ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ has been bandied about by parents trying to get their kids to eat more fruits and veggies. As it turns out, apples are actually great for developing brains. They’re extremely rich in antioxidants, which can help block free radicals which can cause damage to the cells in our brain. Apples also help prevent memory loss, and the fiber in the fruit can help lower our risk for strokes. Unfortunately, much of the apple’s fiber is found in the peel, so it’s integral that your children get used to eating the apple with the peel, in order to reap the most benefits possible. Just one apple contains around five grams of dietary fiber.
Sweet potatoes are a great food to introduce to children while they’re still young. They make an ideal snack for babies, because they condense down into a smooth and delicious consistency with just a little bit of mashing. Then, when children are older, they can be made into delicious oven fries, seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little bit of rosemary. Sweet potatoes contain lots of carbohydrates, which has gotten a bad rap in the past, but carbs that come from natural sources are important for giving energy to the brain. Sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin A and C, and contain lots of fiber, which helps reduce our risk for diabetes, and improves our overall digestion. If you ever find yourself craving fries, or if your kids are begging for fries with dinner, try serving delicious sweet potato fries!
Another delicious and easy food that you should be serving to your children is yogurt. It’s super easy to eat — even babies who are just starting solid foods can eat it. We’ve been hearing for years that eating yogurt on a regular basis can help regulate our gut through its rich portion of probiotics, but did you know that these probiotics can also help our cognitive response, as well as our emotional processing capabilities? In a study at UCLA, test subjects who were given probiotic yogurt twice a day were shown to have a greater degree of cognitive responsiveness in their brains after only four weeks. Yogurt also contains calcium, which is known to help prevent bone loss and osteoporosis, and potassium, which helps control our blood pressure. If you can’t manage to get your child to eat yogurt on their own, try putting it in smoothies, or using it as a basis for a delicious quick bread.
It should come as no surprise that heavily processed foods are damaging to our child’s long-term brain health. Foods that are extremely high in trans fats, like processed foods, packaged snacks, and other easy-to-grab convenience items, have been shown in some studies to increase our likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and can contribute to overall cognitive decline. It’s also extremely easy to develop a taste for these items because the extreme amounts of salt and sugar make them taste delicious, and make it difficult to return to eating whole, unprocessed foods. The more we teach our children at a young age that whole foods are more satisfying, the better chance they have at sticking to a healthy diet as they grow up and start to make their own decisions about the food they eat.
For years, we’ve heard that drinking calorific, sugary soda has an overall negative affect on our physical health, but we can confirm that sodas have also been shown to increase our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as we age. Sodas contain a large amount of high-fructose corn syrup, which is a highly processed form of glucose that can cause rapid sugar highs followed by a huge drop in energy. One study on rats showed that giving them a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup led to brain inflammation, and memory problems. Instead of giving children soda, encourage your children to drink water, or milk. If your children miss the sweetness and flavor of soda, you can offer to whip up some fruit-flavored sugar syrups and stir it into a glass of sparkling water.
One way that parents get their children to eat their protein every day is by tempting them with delicious deli meats, like salami, prosciutto, and bologna. While these treats are delicious and can be filling, the undeniable fact is that most deli meats are cured using smoke or salt, and preservatives, like sodium nitrate. While the salt bomb is not great, the bigger issue is with the artificial chemicals and preservatives that many companies use to create deli meat in less time. High amounts of these nitrates can increase our risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and can cause the liver to put out chemicals that are damaging to our brain. These nitrates are so popular because they expand the shelf life of deli meat, but you’d be much better off buying good quality meat, and cooking it from scratch. If your child doesn’t like large cuts of meat, try and tempt them with pulled meat, or a long, slow braise, which are much less chewy.
The tradition of having an adorable 1st birthday party with a smash cake is extremely popular, and it’s a great way for parents to show off their growing baby. However, cakes, especially cakes made in commercial bakeries, are one of the worst foods that you can give a child. The refined carbohydrates that make up the bulk of the cake have an extremely high glycemic index, which means that they spike our blood sugar levels without giving us any lasting energy. Research has shown that just one meal of high-glycemic foods can affect our memory. The refined sugar in the icing can also lead to impaired memory and cognitive decline. If your heart is set on a cake, try and make it from scratch, so you can control the amount of sugar that goes into it.