The Good and Bad Ways Food Affects the Brain
The brain grows rapidly in the first five years of a child’s life. It triples in volume during the first two years and reaches 90 percent of its adult size by five years of age. Rapid growth uses energy, and in fact, infants use up to 60 percent of the energy they get from food for brain growth. Even in older children, teens, and adults, the brain uses about 25 percent of total food energy, though the brain itself makes up only about 2 percent of a child’s body weight. Above all other organs, food affects the brain the most – for better or worse.
One day we were visiting friends, and the mother complained about her child’s behavior, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him…” After spending some time in their kitchen, I realized what had gotten into him. Junk food!
How Smart Foods Build Smart Brains
The brain is composed of trillions of specialized cells called neurons. The cells contain a number of different structures, each of which has an important job to do. The structures in the brain are composed of raw materials from food you eat which means food affects the brain very significantly. They also depend on high-quality nutrition for the energy you need in order to think and learn.
Let’s look into how food affects the brain of your child.
- The cell membrane is a filter that allows good stuff into the cell while keeping bad stuff out. Certain nutrients like omega-3 fats and the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables form the structural and functional components of the cell membrane.
- The cell itself is really a microscopic energy-processing factory. Brain cells turn the glucose in the blood into energy to manufacture substances that help the brain think and repair itself.
- The axon is like an electrical wire projecting from the neuron. Electrical impulses travel down the axon, causing it to release neurotransmitters, substances that carry messages across the gap between cells to receptor sites on the dendrites of the next neuron. A fatty sheath called myelin covers the axon, like insulation around an electrical wire, and speeds the transmission of electrical impulses. The more omega-3 fats in the diet, the better the quality of this insulation, and the more efficiently neurons can communicate.
- The synapses are the gaps between the cells. The dendrites are fingerlike projections from the end of the nerve cell that attempt to connect with other brain cells across the synapse. Brain researchers estimate that the growing brain of a child can make a couple million connections between neurons every second. It’s the connections between neurons that account for most of the brain growth in the early years. Building connections – pathways – between neurons is how the brain makes sense of information coming in, how it remembers things, and how it signals muscles to react and move. Growing more connections makes the brain smarter.
How food affects the brain can simply be remembered by the saying – garbage in equals garbage out. These brain cell structures are affected by what you eat and when you eat it. Smart eating means choosing the right fats and carbs and combining them with protein so that your brain grows healthy cells, makes healthy connections, and operates calmly and efficiently.
Does Your Child have N.D.D.?
Oftentimes parents bring their child to me for consultation on learning or behavioral problems at school. They typically open their concern with, “We and our child’s teacher believe he has A.D.D…. ” After taking a nutritional history, I often reply, “Your child doesn’t have A.D.D., he has N.D.D.” Obviously, they look surprised. They don’t know what N.D.D. is, but it doesn’t sound like something they want their child to have. I go on to explain that the term I use to describe how food affects the brain negatively is N.D.D., nutrition deficit disorder. In my experience, many children described as having A.D.D. lose this tag once their N.D.D. is treated.