Everybody’s heard that eating carrots can help improve eyesight, or that calcium-rich milk is good for your teeth and bones. But what about the brain?
“From a neuroscientist’s perspective, food is really fundamentally important for brain health, because our brains literally run on nutrients,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative and author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.
Brains need different nutrients as they age, and early childhood is a particularly critical time for brain growth, development, and health.
“Even just in the first few years of life, the brain is really sprouting neurons at light speed,” says Mosconi, who’s also a neuroscientist. “A baby’s brain has more neurons, more brain cells, than there are stars in the Milky Way.”
Overall, scientists have found around 45 nutrients that are key to brain health, including things like protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. (Have kids take this fun quiz to see how much they know about their brain!)
Of course, the words “folate” and “choline” aren’t likely to make anyone’s mouth water—children or otherwise—so the trick is to target the foods that are naturally rich in the good stuff. In addition to the foods listed below, consider adding to the menu oats, nuts, citrus fruits, beans, and vegetables of different colors.
“Starting early is key,” says Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “If all a child has ever known is healthy foods, they’re far less likely to fight with their parents about eating them.”
By targeting a few food groups and experimenting with new ways of preparing them, fueling your family’s brain growth can be easier than you might think.
THE FOOD: Berries
WHY IT MATTERS: Even inexpensive and common berries like blackberries and blueberries are bursting with vitamin C, and though most people associate that nutrient with the immune system, the brain needs it too. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, says Mosconi, which means it plays a crucial role in neutralizing naturally occurring free radicals that cause damage to our DNA and cells.
“It’s also important for the formation of neurotransmitters, the chemicals used for signaling in the nervous system,” Mosconi says. Without enough vitamin C, the integrity of many body tissues, brain included, start to weaken.
Raspberries, dark cherries, mulberries, and goji berries are other superstars in this category. Berries also boast a good mix of natural sugars and fiber, which is important for the digestive system. (Read about the secrets of the brain.)
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: Berries are probably going to be the easiest sell on this list, but if you’re looking to switch things up, Mosconi recommends dipping berries in yogurt or even dark chocolate, which has its own brain benefits thanks to an essential amino acid called tryptophan. You might also freeze berries and blend them into a sorbet with a touch of lemon juice and maple syrup.
THE FOOD: Plums
WHY IT MATTERS: This fruit, whether fresh or dried (called a prune) is a great source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid linked to a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which can help regulate mood. Keeping your child’s brain supplied with tryptophan will also help them sleep at night, when our brains rest and repair themselves. Chia seeds and raw cacao—the ingredient in dark chocolate—also contain tryptophan.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: With a lip-smacking combination of sweetness and tang, pureed prunes can be one of your baby’s first solid foods. As kids get older, whole plums are a fun alternative to apples in the lunchbox. Or you can get fancy and slice prunes down the middle and slather them in crunchy peanut butter for a healthy snack full of fiber and protein.
THE FOOD: Sweet potatoes
WHY IT MATTERS: If there was one food to focus on for children’s brain health, it would be dark leafy greens, says Mosconi, whose latest book is called The XX Brain: The Groundbreaking Science Empowering Women to Maximize Cognitive Health and Prevent Alzheimer's Disease. But she’s still honest: “Kids won’t eat them.” So instead, how about a tuber that’s naturally sweet, incredibly versatile, and packed full of another antioxidant known as vitamin A? This essential vitamin is important for general brain health, but a severe lack of it can actually hamper central nervous system development and function.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: You can mash ’em. Bake ’em. Fry ’ em. Grill ’ em. Turn ’em into tots, tarts, latkes, or soups. The possibilities are endless.
THE FOOD: Fish
WHY IT MATTERS: More than half of our brains are composed of fat, which should mean it’s a no-brainer that lipids would play a role in neurological health. But the kind of fats you eat matter. For instance, one type of omega-3 fat known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is extremely important for building nerve cells. These cells are responsible for healthy brain growth and development, as well as learning skills, Mosconi says. To get it, “you need to focus on cold-water fatty fish.” Some of the most DHA-rich fish are salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring, easily remembered with the acronym SMASH. (Get more kid-friendly recipes on Nat Geo Kids.)
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: With a young daughter herself, Mosconi often makes what she calls the “elevated fish stick.” First dip a fish filet in a bowl of egg, then into a bowl of finely crushed pistachios, almonds, breadcrumbs, and salt. Finish by sautéing in coconut or extra virgin olive oil. Of course, if your kiddo won’t touch one of the SMASH fish, it might help to get them used to the taste of fish with the regular old patties and sticks found in the freezer section. Tilapia and cod have healthy fatty acids, too, McCarthy says.
She also has a parting piece of advice: Parents need to walk the walk as well.
“Kids watch their parents and learn from them,” McCarthy says. “If you want your kids to eat healthy brain foods, you need to eat them too.”