Children And Nutrition: Recent Research
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 18, 2006

You’ve heard the expression “You are what you eat,” and when we’re talking about children, nothing could be more accurate. While adults dither about eating right for their health, what they feed their children is especially important in preparing them to learn in school and to behave as well. This Newsletter examines research that pertains to children and learning.

Micronutrients--Vitamins and Minerals
Proper nutrition for children actually begins in the womb. Iodine deficiencies in the womb can impair the cognitive development of the fetus (1); iodine deficiency is the single most common cause of preventable mental retardation and brain damage in the world. Iodine, iron, folate, and zinc are all important for healthy brain development. Emerging research suggests that vitamin B-12 and especially omega-3 fatty acids are also important (2). Clinical trials are still needed to see if increasing these nutrients will compensate for earlier deficiencies.

Brain development involves both learning and behavior. In a study examining serum zinc levels, researchers found a correlation between low zinc levels in children and ADHD. While not cause and effect, researchers have suggested that this adds to the growing body of evidence that zinc is related to ADHD (3).

Macronutrients--Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat
While sugar is vilified by the press and most health experts, it’s really fat intake that seems to be critical for learning. In examining data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Survey, researchers found a relationship between polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), cholesterol, and cognitive function (4). As the levels of PUFAs increased (with a decrease either in saturated fat or carbohydrates), performance on cognitive tests increased. However, cognitive performance decreased when dietary cholesterol intake increased.

In another study, researchers examined the use of fish-oil supplements in a group of subjects born in 1936 (5). Subjects who used fish-oil supplements had less cognitive decline than those who did not. This contributes to the growing body of evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are important to brain function throughout life.

The question then becomes: if adequate nutrition doesn’t occur early in life, can additional nutrients later help cognitive development and behavior in school-age children? Preliminary research suggests yes. In a study of children 8-12 with ADHD, supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids improved learning and decreased behavioral problems over 12 weeks (6). While more research needs to done, the results are encouraging.

Start With Breakfast
While the types of nutrients are important, just starting the day with adequate calories may help (7). Researchers recently examined over 40 studies that asked whether children who ate breakfast did better in school. The evidence suggests yes with breakfast eaters having better memories, test grades, and attendance. One side benefit: while breakfast-eaters generally consumed more calories, they were less likely to be overweight.

What This Recent Research Means
Let’s start by what it doesn’t mean: mega-dosing children with vitamins, minerals, or omega-3 fatty acids. The nutritional needs of children have been established with Recommended Dietary Allowances. Dramatically increasing nutrient levels, especially minerals, can be dangerous.

However it’s important that children get at least the RDAs for their ages. Most nutrients should come from the diet and the focus should always be on getting children to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein along with less sugar and saturated fats. But let’s be realistic: after your children begin school, you can’t control everything they eat. A broad-spectrum multivitamin-multimineral along with omega-3 fatty acids should meet the needs of most children. Any further supplementation should be done under the supervision of a physician or dietician.

Give your children the simplest advantage you can so they can do well in school: give them a good breakfast and their basic supplements. Those are the building blocks for learning and good health.

  1. Black MM. Micronutrient deficiencies and cognitive functioning. J Nutr. 2003 Nov;133(11 Suppl 2):3927S-3931S.

  2. Bryan J, et al. Nutrients for cognitive development in school-aged children. Nutr Rev. 2004 Aug;62(8):295-306.

  3. Arnold LE, et al. Serum zinc correlates with parent- and teacher-rated inattention in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2005 Aug;15(4):628-36.

  4. Zhang J, et al. Dietary fat intake is associated with psychosocial and cognitive functioning of school-aged children in the United States. J Nutr. 2005 Aug;135(8):1967-73.

  5. Whalley LJ, et al. Cognitive aging, childhood intelligence, and the use of food supplements: possible involvement of n-3 fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Dec;80(6):1650-7.

  6. Richardson AJ, Puri BK. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of supplementation with highly unsaturated fatty acids on ADHD-related symptoms in children with specific learning difficulties. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2002 Feb;26(2):233-9.
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