Food for thought: Nutrition's role in building your child's brain power

PHOTO: Food for thought: Nutrition's role in building your child's brain power

SINGAPORE - According to the World Health Organisation, each year more than 200 million children under five years old fail to reach their full cognitive and social potential, and one key reason for this is the lack of nutrition.

What many parents are unaware of is that adequate nutrition is essential for development during the first three years of life.

For one, the brain is a very costly organ that uses a lot of energy and nutritional resources, Professor Sanja Kolaček, vice-president of the Croatian Pediatric Society, told YourHealth.

This is especially so during rapid development, which occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of a child's life, she added.

During the first 12 months, vision is rapidly developing and the brain is working to develop synapses.

Approximately 75 per cent of a baby's brain growth takes place in the first year.

While all nutrients, together with energy and proteins, are important, certain nutrients have particularly important roles.

While these roles may not necessarily be essential, they can boost a baby's mental and physical development to its optimal state.

These nutrients include long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6 LC-PUFA), choline, folate, iron, zinc, iodine, copper and lutein.

What's lutein?

While most parents are likely to be aware of the benefits of omega 3, zinc or iron, many are left scratching their heads when it comes to lutein, the predominant carotenoid found in the key regions associated with memory and learning.

Lutein is an example of a nutrient that is not essential, but important. There are no specific diseases linked to the low intake of lutein.

Yet it remains an important component of a general diet for optimal health.

This is especially true for infants and children. According to Abbott nutrition, it plays a unique role in supporting eye health.

During the first year of an infant's life, the baby's brain and eyes are developing rapidly. Not only does brain development contribute to greater intelligence later on in life, what the baby sees during those precious years also sets the stage for a lifetime of learning.

In the first months of life, a baby's retina undergoes significant developmental changes. Research has shown that Lutein works in two ways:

• Protects eyes by absorbing potentially damaging light
• Protects against oxidative damage

Furthermore, certain studies have suggested that lutein may help protect omega fatty acids, like DHA,2,7.

DHA and AA

DHA and AA are important fatty acids that are naturally found in foods such as salmon, cooked shellfish and other seafood.

DHA concentrates in the brain and helps important cell membranes function properly. Likewise, DHA and AA have been shown to support baby's brain and eye development.

How do I know if my child is getting the optimal amount of nutrients?

There are methods to calculate how a child can get its daily optimal intake for every single nutrient, however, this is highly impractical for the everyday parent, said Prof Kolaček.

To be reasonably safe about providing your child with an optimal amount of nutrients, it's best to feed the child a diversified and balanced diet, she said.

Parents are best off placing on their child's plate a variety of foods from all the major food groups, for example, fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat/fish, milk and dairy products.

Lutein is a nutrient naturally found in breastmilk - including colostrum, the first milk produced after giving birth, produced for the early days of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding moms are encouraged to eat a balanced diet including foods with lutein to help their infants get this key nutrient. Foods rich in lutein include spinach, kiwi, zucchini squash, green beans corn, eggs, apples and yellow squash.

These foods can also be incorporated into the diets of infants transitioning to solid food.

Otherwise, there are also infant milk formulas which incorporate many of the important nutrients.

For parents who are concerned that over estimating their child's daily nutritional intake may harm them, rather than help them, doctors say the risks mainly lie in just overdoing the calories.

"Of course we can give too much, particularly in calories. However, if we disregard "pure" hyper-caloric intake or energy excess, products for children are usually fortified following strict guidelines provided by the regulatory bodies, and are adjusted to the nutritional requirements of the paediatric age group," said Prof Kolaček.

Should adults take lutein too?

According to Dr Elizabeth Johnson, assistant professor at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, there is no harm in adults doing so.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that lutein is important in the prevention of age-related eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

While dietary lebels (roughly 6 mg/day) are easily attainable through meals, most people do not get these amounts, suggesting that there is a gap between the dietary amount that is associated with health and the average intake, she said.

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The formula contains a number of ingredients that support brain, eye and physical development, including AA and DHA, omega 3 and 6, taurine, choline, iron, folic acid, zinc, vitamin A and lutein.

This is in addition to it being fortified with calcium and other ingredients to support a child's natural immune system.

Cost: $21.29 for a 400g tin