Is Your Child's Diet Optimized For Cognitive Performance?

Foods your children should be eating for their best cognitive health.

Posted Mar 21, 2019

Tara Thiagarajan
Source: Tara Thiagarajan

Most of the time, we think about healthy eating in terms of foods that give us energy and won’t cause cancer or diabetes or some other future disease. Yet there are many other aspects of food and health. Your everyday brain health and performance is one of them. The brain gets most of the nutrients it needs to perform its daily learning, thinking and remembering from the food you eat. It, therefore, stands to reason that every bite of food, or sip of drink, you ingest during the day, and when you do it, can have an impact on its development and performance. What effect do dietary choices have on cognitive performance? This is particularly important to know for children when their brains are rapidly developing and performance in school is so important.

One common research approach has been to look at the effects of vitamin and other nutrient supplements on cognitive performance. Unfortunately, these studies on vitamin supplements have shown mixed results making it difficult to obtain a clear picture of the benefits of specific supplements.  This is in no small part due to the wide-ranging complexity and differences in the diets of participants taking the supplements has.  Another approach has thus been to study the relationship between one’s entire diet and performance.  While these kinds of studies have their challenges as well, they do provide some direction.

Ditch the Ramen and Coke

A recent study from South Korea looked at how different dietary choices influenced cognitive functioning in children. In this study, they collected detailed information on the diet of a group of children, essentially everything they had eaten, and then put them through a battery of cognitive tests. By assessing performance on these tests and comparing it to their food choices and estimated nutrient intake, they attempted to find trends in the data.

As it turned out, there were indeed broad associations between the children’s meal choices and cognitive performance. For instance, they found that consumption of instant noodles and plain white rice was significantly associated with poorer performance across several of the tests, including those assessing verbal memory and mental reasoning. Drinking Coca Cola and eating fast food was also associated with poorer performance on these tests. In contrast, eating nuts, mushrooms, vegetables, meat, and poultry was positively correlated with improved memory and mental reasoning.

Include foods with Vitamins B1, B6, C and D

The researchers then converted the food choices to nutrients to look at which specific nutrients were associated with better test performance.  This threw up a positive relationship between several vitamins and minerals (B1, B6, C, and potassium) and short-term memory performance. In addition, they found that when children ate fewer foods containing protein, vitamin D, B vitamins and zinc this was associated with the children making more mistakes on the tests, possibly because of inattention.

See our related post Vitamins for Brain Health

Eat breakfast

Another study from the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center looked at the importance of eating at the start of the day. They explored how either eating or skipping breakfast influenced children’s performance on a mental arithmetic test. They divided the children into two groups – a group who ate breakfast and a group who skipped breakfast and compared performance between the two groups. They found that children who ate breakfast answered more questions correctly, whilst those who skipped breakfast not only made more mistakes but also gave their answers more quickly. Significantly, using EEG, they also found measurable differences in brain activity between those who had eaten breakfast and those who had not. The importance of eating breakfast has also been supported by other researchers from Canada which has highlighted the relationship between regularly eating breakfast and improved academic performance.

Where next?

Teasing out the precise relationship between specific dietary choices, nutrient intake and cognitive function is challenging due to a large number of food and nutrient types.  There are also other confounds such as family environment and sleep that can influence cognitive performance.  It won't be until there are very large studies that look at all these multiple dimensions that we will be able to arrive at the optimal diet for cognitive performance.  However, altogether, ditching the cup-o-noodles and coke and eating a protein and micronutrient-rich breakfast is probably the smart thing to do.  It could make your children (and you) think a whole lot better.

References

Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-578. 

Kim, J., & Kang, S. (2017). Relationships between Dietary Intake and Cognitive Function in Healthy Korean Children and Adolescents. Journal Of Lifestyle Medicine, 7(1), 10-17.

Pivik, R., Tennal, K., Chapman, S., & Gu, Y. (2012). Eating breakfast enhances the efficiency of neural networks engaged during mental arithmetic in school-aged children. Physiology & Behavior, 106(4), 548-555.

Sampasa-Kanyinga, H., & Hamilton, H. (2017). Eating breakfast regularly is related to higher school connectedness and academic performance in Canadian middle- and high-school students. Public Health, 145, 120-123.