Supporting Healthy Brain Development in Children through Nutrition

Smiling mixed race girl holding an apple and broccoli in her hands. Healthy vegetarian food for kids

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BY Karen Seymour, RD, LD, Kansas State Department of Education

Originally published in the Summer 2020 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.

Nutrition is an important factor that can affect the growth and development of the brain and ultimately influence information processing and learning in children. The brain is a large and complex organ that performs many functions and helps regulate the body.

Brain formation begins during pregnancy, accelerates during early childhood and re- mains steady through the adolescent years. Research suggests that nutrition plays an important role in brain development during pregnancy as well as through the first three years of life when the brain is undergoing its most rapid rate of growth and development. It is important for children to consume the right amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats as well as vitamins and minerals, plus water to support brain development. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recommends focusing on a healthy eating pattern, including a variety of nutrient dense foods in the recommended amounts, while limiting added sugar, salt and saturated fat intake.

Essential Meal Components

Carbohydrates supply the body with glucose, which is the primary and preferred fuel for the brain. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products. Since the human brain is always working, the brain needs a constant supply of fuel. Whole grains are one source of carbohydrates and provide vitamins and minerals that are essential for early brain development. For example, the B vitamin folate found in whole grains plays a crucial role in the formation of genetic material during pregnancy. Some examples of whole grains include, whole wheat flour, whole grain cereals, breads and pasta, brown rice, and quinoa.

Protein also plays a major role in early brain development. The DGAs recommend consuming a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas) and nuts, seeds and soy products. To function properly the brain and central nervous system need a number of amino acids that are found in protein foods. Protein should account for approximately 20% of a person’s diet. Children between the ages of 3-5 should aim to consume 3-5 ounces of protein each day.

Fats and oils are part of a healthy diet and provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E. The brain structure is largely composed of fats; therefore, healthy dietary fat intake is necessary for optimal brain development. Essential fatty acids have been researched extensively in relation to cognition, attention span and overall health. Examples of healthy fats include fatty fish such as salmon or tuna, vegetable oils, nuts, flax seed, eggs and avocado.

Fruit and vegetable intake supply the brain with vitamins and minerals that act as co-enzymes in chemical reactions, including energy production. Vitamins and minerals also play a role in nerve conduction and cellular activity in the brain, protect brain cells, and assist in the creation of neurotransmitters and hormones. The brain is highly susceptible to damage due to its vulnerable cell membranes; therefore, vitamins serve an essential purpose of protecting the brain.

Milk is an important component of meals. Whether it’s breastmilk, infant formula or cow’s milk, milk provides essential calories, fat, protein along with vitamins and minerals necessary for brain development. For example, calcium is a vital mineral for nerve cell transmission and Vitamin D plays a role in regulation of chemical messengers.

It is recommended that children between the ages of 1-2 consume whole milk that provides healthy fats for critical brain development in the second year of life.

Water is critical for brain function due to the brain being largely composed of water. Water is vital for carrying out many brain functions, including transporting nutrients and cushioning the brain. It is important to note that brain function decreases when the body is dehydrated. By making drinking water available throughout the day child care providers can ensure that children stay hydrated.

Eating a variety of foods from all food groups can help ensure that children and adults alike get the necessary nutrients they need to grow and thrive. USDA Choose MyPlate,, has great resources for parents and providers that outline how much food a child needs from each food group and also offers tips to assist caregivers in successfully getting children to consume the food that is offered.

Participation in Child Nutrition programs such as Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program can address those needs. These programs serve wholesome meals consisting of whole grains, lean proteins, fat-free or low-fat milk options, and a variety of fruits and vegetables and follow nutritional standards that are age appropriate and based on science.

It is vital to provide healthy, nutritious meals so children’s brains can develop properly and be ready to learn.


Karen Seymour is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who currently works for the Kansas State Department of Education as a grants Project Director and a Child Nutrition Consultant. Karen holds dual degrees in Food and Nutrition, and Exercise Science from Kansas State University and has more than 20 years of professional experience in the health and fitness industry, including owning a nutrition and fitness business, medical nutrition sales, and child and senior meal programs. Karen is also a certified personal trainer and holds certificates of training in malnutrition and in adult and child weight management.

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