Brain Building

Today in the United States, 1 in 6 children suffers from a disability that affects their behavior, memory, or ability to learn. More than $80 billion dollars are spent each year in the U.S. to treat neurodevelopmental disorders. Diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) alone up are up 250% since 19901. How much of a role does modern food play in this increase?

Children’s brains are built differently depending on what they are fed when they are rapidly growing. Healthy brains are about 60% structural fat (not like the flabby fat found elsewhere in the body). As the brain grows, it selects building blocks from among the fatty acids available in what the child eats. The most prevalent structural fat in the brain is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the omega 3 fatty acids. DHA is also a major structural component of the retina of the eye. A large number of studies have suggested that low DHA levels are associated with problems with intelligence, vision, and behavior2.

DHA is the most prevalent long chain fatty acid in human breast milk, which suggests that it’s intended for babies to consume a lot of it. Studies have shown that babies who have not gotten DHA in their diets have significantly less of it in their brains than those who have3.

My point (at the moment) is not about the superiority of breast milk, but that growing children quite literally are what they eat. When you think about this, you begin to feel differently about “cheap” food.

Read More From This Series:
Part 1 – Brain Food For Your Kids: How Do You Score?
Part 2 – From Backyard Gardens to Kindergartens
Part 3 – Brain Building
Part 4 – How is your food grown?
Part 5 – Antioxidants – Extra Credit
Part 6 – How Our Food Is Processed
Part 7 – Refined Sugars and Flours
Part 8 – School Fuel: Homework for Parents
Part 9 – How Much Does a Child Need Each Day?

1Szpir M. 2006. New thinking on neurodevelopment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 114(2):a100-107
2Anderson GJ, Connor WE, Corliss JD. 1990. Docosahexaenoic acid is the preferred dietary n-3 fatty acid for the development of the brain and retina. Pediatr Res 27:89–97. Birch EE, Garfield S, Hoffman DR, Uauy R, Birch DG. 2000. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Dev Med Child Neurol 42:174–181. Makrides M, Neumann MA, Byard RW, Simmer K, Gibson RA. 1994. Fatty acid composition of brain, retina, and erythrocytes in breast- and formula-fed infants. Am J Clin Nutr 60:189–194. Makrides M, Neumann MA, Simmer K, Gibson RA. 2000b. A critical appraisal of the role of dietary long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on neural indices of term infants: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 105:32–38.
3Farquharson J. 1994. Infant cerebral cortex and dietary fatty acids. Eur J Clin Nutr 48:S24–S26. Farquharson J, Cockburn F, Patrick WA, Jamieson EC, Logan RW. 1992. Infant cerebral cortex phospholipid fatty-acid composition and diet. Lancet 340:810–813. Farquharson J, Jamieson EC, Abbasi KA, Patrick WJA, Logan RW, Cockburn F. 1995. Effect of diet on the fatty acid composition of the major phospholipids of infant cerebral cortex. Arch Dis Child 72:198–203. Jamieson EC, Abbasi KA, Cockburn F, Farquharson J, Logan RW, Patrick WA. 1994. Effect of diet on term infant cerebral cortex fatty acid composition. World Rev Nutr Diet 75:139–141. Jamieson EC, Farquharson J, Logan RW, Howatson AG, Patrick WJA, Weaver LT, Cockburn F. 1999. Infant cerebral gray and white matter fatty acids in relation to age and diet. Lipids 34:1065–1071.

Published on: January 29, 2007
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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