Good nutrition is the bedrock of child development, enabling young bodies and minds to grow and flourish. Well-nourished children are better able to learn, play, and explore the world around them, whilst being more resilient in the face of illness and crisis.
According to UNICEF, there are more than 340 million children under five affected by micronutrient deficiencies around the world, resulting in weakened immune systems, delayed growth and impaired brain development. With the cost-of-living crisis, soaring food insecurity, and the growing issue of childhood obesity, the state of nutritional health of our young is picking up more and more attention.
The role nutrition plays in cognitive processes and children’s education and academic performance has been widely studied, and as children return to school after the Christmas break, we take a closer look at the importance of nutrient-rich meals and how they can contribute to improved concentration, sustained energy levels, and overall cognitive function, helping children to thrive within the classroom and beyond.
Which nutrients are most important for children’s brain development?
Young children rely heavily on carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats as they grow, as well as calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and vitamins A, C and D. Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish like salmon, have become one of the most celebrated ‘brain foods’ — as a nutrient shown to play a crucial role in the structure and function of brain cells, and in aiding cognitive functions like memory and problem-solving. In addition, dietary fibre from plant-based foods plays an important role.
The role of fibre in our diets, at all ages, is discussed in our interview with Dr Kavita Karnik, Global Head of Nutrition and Regulatory Affairs at Tate & Lyle, as part of our Nutrition for Life programme.
It’s well known that fibre is closely linked to our gut health, but it also helps regulate blood sugar, which can help with mood and attention.
Most importantly, evidence shows that a ‘whole diet approach‘ — focusing on a balanced diet rather than single nutrients or reducing foods of concern — is what brings most benefit to children’s cognitive health. Regular eating patterns and consuming a wide variety of fresh and natural food is what will help children’s mood, behaviour and learning ability.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day as it sets the stage for how our brains perform.
A UK study from 2019 which surveyed 2,000 parents revealed that a staggering 65% children regularly skip the first meal of the day. For those children who do eat breakfast every day, the majority (54%) are consuming high sugar cereals, with a further 31% opting for toast with high sugar toppings, such as chocolate spread.
Nutritionists recommend oats or wholegrain cereals which provide a steady release of glucose, the brain’s primary energy source, which can help ensure sustained mental focus throughout the morning.
Protein-rich foods like yogurt or eggs provide amino acids, essential for neurotransmitter production. These neurotransmitters are key messengers that facilitate communication between brain cells, influencing mood and mental processes.
Smoothies make excellent nutrient-boosting additions to breakfast for schoolchildren, and can be loaded with greens and protein sources like Greek yogurt or nut butter.
Watch our Smart Thinking interview with Bridget Benelam from the British Nutrition Foundation, on children’s nutrition.
Pre and post-school snacks offer more opportunities for adding nutrients into children’s diets and can be strategic tools for sustaining energy and supporting cognitive function.
Pairing carrot sticks with hummus provides a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein. This combination supports a steady release of energy, maintaining focus throughout learning. As a sweet treat, dark chocolate, with its flavonoids and caffeine, can enhance brain activity and alertness.
Almonds are a snack rich in nutrients like vitamin E and magnesium. These contribute to improved blood flow, benefiting overall concentration.
Hydration helps keep brains sharp
Keeping hydrated plays a pivotal role in maintaining optimal brain function. Hydration supports efficient nutrient transport to the brain, aiding cognitive processes.
Infused water with citrus or cucumber provides essential hydration while adding vitamins and antioxidants. For older children, herbal teas — beyond being a soothing option — contribute to hydration while offering compounds like polyphenols that may positively impact our neurological activity.
Tailoring nut-free lunches
Navigating nut-free lunches for allergen-sensitive schools presents opportunities to explore a more diverse range of protein-rich plant based foods like seeds or legumes. These alternatives contribute essential amino acids necessary for various physiological functions, including brain health.
Chickpea-based snacks provide a source of protein and fiber and promotes fullness, ensuring students remain focused and energized throughout the school day. Edamame beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and tofu or tempeh also make great substitutes for nut snacks.
Parents play a crucial role in shaping their children’s dietary habits and fostering good nutrition. Creating a home environment that prioritizes nutritious food choices; keeping a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and lean proteins readily available; allows healthy habits to develop naturally and for the long-term.
Empowering children with knowledge about nutrition is equally vital. By involving kids in meal planning and preparation, teaching them about the nutritional value of different foods, we can enhance their understanding but also encourage a positive attitude towards healthy eating.
Discussing the importance of a balanced diet in relation to energy levels, concentration, and overall wellbeing helps children make informed choices about the foods they consume. Encouraging regular family meals provides an opportunity for open conversations about food and nutrition, fostering a positive relationship with eating.
Habits established in childhood are likely to have a lasting impact, empowering children to make good choices that support their wellbeing throughout their educational journey and for the rest of their lives.
Explore more in our upcoming programmes
ITN Business is set to explore how innovative solutions are shaping the way we eat in ‘Food and Drink: Powers Our Nation’ launching at the IFE, International Food & Drink event, 25th – 27th March 2024, ExCel, London.
Plus, keep an eye out for ITN Business’ Prioritising Children’s Health programme, launching later in 2024 — details coming soon.
In the meantime, head to our programme page Nutrition for Life to watch our 2023 programme, or explore individual partner films, packed with insights and interviews.