Joel Fuhrman MD

Joel Fuhrman MD

Posted February 24, 2011

Published in Health

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A child needs a healthy diet to build a healthy brain

Read More: children nutrition, intelligence, Omega-3 fatty acid, parenting

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A nutrient-rich diet is essential for children to develop optimal brain function. A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health followed the dietary patterns of nearly 4,000 children from birth for over eight years. The study found that toddlers who ate a nutrient-rich diet full of fruits and vegetables had higher IQ scores when they reached 8 years of age compared to the toddlers who consumed processed foods full of fat and sugar.1 The foods that the toddlers ate had a dramatic long term effect on their brain function. 

Students. Flickr: knittymarie

Nutrition plays an important role in brain development during all stages of childhood.

Whereas the brain grows fastest in the first few years of life, it continues to develop throughout adolescence.2 Thus, it is important that children of all ages consume a high nutrient diet to ensure adequate brain development.  Breastfeeding mothers who themselves eat a high nutrient diet pass on those nutrients to their children, improving their children’s cognitive development.  Children who are breastfed past their first birthday have higher IQ scores than children who are raised on formula.3 A greater proportion of an infant’s diet made up of breast milk also correlates to greater brain volume in adolescence.4 This is due in part to the DHA content of breast milk, since DHA is a major component of brain cell membranes. Breast milk is not only an important source of DHA, but it provides many other essential nutrients for the developing brain, as well as promoting the health of the immune and respiratory systems and supporting overall childhood health. 6-8 Upon the introduction of solid foods, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with higher IQ and better memory skills when children reach 4 years of age.9  In school-age children, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as increased cholesterol intake have been linked to diminished intelligence and poor academic performance.10-11

Children who eat a nutrient-dense diet are providing their brains with supplementary antioxidant support. The brain uses the most oxygen and produces most energy of any part of body, and thus it is highly susceptible to oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress is inflammation caused by uncontrolled free radicals.  Free radicals can propagate throughout the cell, damaging the cell and even lead to cell death. Cells have their own antioxidant defense enzymes to process the free radicals, but they are not 100% efficient and we must use dietary antioxidants to process the rest.12 The brain’s antioxidant defenses becoming overwhelmed is one of the main mechanisms of brain aging, and this has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.13-14 Thus, a healthy, antioxidant rich diet is especially beneficial for the brain and is likely involved in the association between plant food consumption and higher IQ scores.

The foods children consume early in life provide them with the raw materials to construct their brains and ultimately supply their brain power. A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and seeds is the only way to ensure children get the array of phytochemicals, antioxidants, fatty acids and other micronutrients to adequately supply their growing brains.

For more information on children's health, read Dr. Fuhrman's book Disease Proof Your Child.

1Northstone K, Joinson C, Emmett P, Ness A, Paus T. Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age? A population-based cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2011 Feb 7. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21300993.

2Porter JN, Collins PF, Muetzel RL, Lim KO, Luciana M. Associations between cortical thickness and verbal fluency in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Neuroimage. 2011 Jan 19. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21255662.

3Mortensen EL, Michaelsen KF, Sanders SA, Reinisch JM. The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. JAMA. 2002 May 8;287(18):2365-71.

4 Isaacs EB, Fischl BR, Quinn BT, et al.  Impact of breast milk on intelligence quotient, brain size, and white matter development. Pediatr Res. 2010 Apr;67(4):357-62.

5Society for Research in Child Development (2009, September 17). Supplementing Babies' Formula With DHA Boosts Cognitive Development, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2009, from

6 Ladomenou F, Moschandreas J, Kafatos A, et al. Protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infections during infancy: a prospective study. Arch Dis Child. 2010 Dec;95(12):1004-8.

7Katzen-Luchenta J. The declaration of nutrition, health, and intelligence for the child-to-be. Nutr Health. 2007;19(1-2):85-102.

8University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (2010, November 1). Breast milk study furthers understanding of critical ingredients. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from­ /releases/2010/10/101027145849.htm

9Gale CR, Martyn CN, Marriott LD, et al. Dietary patterns in infancy and cognitive and neuropsychological function in childhood.  J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;50(7):816-23.

10Schoenthaler SJ, Bier ID, Young K, Nichols D, Jansenns S. The effect of vitamin-mineral supplementation on the intelligence of American schoolchildren: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2000 Feb;6(1):19-29. PubMed PMID: 10706232.

11Zhang J, Hebert JR, Muldoon MF. 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.

12Kidd, Parris M. "Neurodegeneration from Mitochondrial Insufficiency: Nutrients, Stem Cells, Growth Factors, and Prospects for Brain Rebuilding Using Integrative Management." Alternative Medicine Review 10 (2005): 268-293.

13Aliev G, Smith MA, Seyidova D, et al. The role of oxidative stress in the pathophysiology of cerebrovascular lesions in Alzheimer’s Disease. Brain Pathol 2002;12:21-35.

14Barja G. Free radicals and aging. Trends Neurosci 2004;27:595-600.


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