Dietary Guidelines for a Child’s Growing Brain

By Scott M. Shannon, author of Please Don’t Label My Child

Once a child moves beyond breastfeeding, it’s up to us parents to take on the awesome responsibility of navigating our way through a pretty lousy American diet and nourishing our kids in ways that help — not hinder — their growing bodies and brains.

This is more challenging than it ought to be, because the American diet — especially for kids — is so skewed toward empty calories. Too many of the foods favored by kids have too much carbohydrate and sugar but not enough protein and far too few good fats (especially EFAs) and micronutrients.

It’s our job, then, to make sure that our kids aren’t poisoned or sickened by diets that are aggressively high in sugar and high in saturated fat but low in protein, vitamins, minerals, and essential trace elements. We need to resist the urge to let marketing efforts (especially those of the fast-food industry) lure us into giving our kids the wrong kind of nutrition. Instead, we have to dedicate ourselves to feeding them adequate amounts of the six key nutrients.

Over the years, parents have asked me to provide a quick overview of the basic dietary guidelines they should follow with their children in order to promote optimal brain health and development, which also means optimal overall growth and development.

Dr. Shannon’s Basic Dietary Guidelines for All Children

If you have the desire to enrich your child’s diet in order to safe-guard healthy brain growth and development, here are a few simple guidelines that may help. I encourage you to consider these suggestions, but please disregard those that don’t apply to your child. For example, if you already know that your child has a peanut allergy, of course she shouldn’t eat nuts. If your toddler seems to tolerate dairy well, there’s no need to switch him to rice or soy products. Feeding our children well requires effort, but it isn’t complicated. The results will be well worth the effort. Here are the basics.

1. Ensure that your child is well hydrated and drinks plenty of water every day. This may seem like a no-brainer, but even slight dehydration makes the effective absorption of all other nutrients impossible.
2. Make sure that your child gets enough protein. Unlike carbohydrates, protein is a steady, slow-release form of energy. I recommend eating two servings a day of chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, or meat.
3. Emphasize good oils. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils such as olive oil and canola oil are good choices. Use butter instead of margarine, though in moderation. Reduce your use of corn oil and safflower oil if possible.
4. Feature cold-water fish, such as salmon, cod, and herring. Ideally, every child should have a minimum of two or three servings a week of fresh fish.
5. Include nuts and seeds. A rich assortment of raw nuts and seeds is best. Put them in salads, cereals, and casseroles. They’re also great as snacks.
6. Emphasize a changing variety of cooked and raw vegetables.
7. Include plenty of fresh fruits, particularly those currently in season.
8. Favor whole grains. Whole grain breads, pastas, rice, and cereals are the way to go.
9. Serve a wide array of foods that are fresh, locally grown, and full of color (which indicates the presence of nutrients). Serve fruits and vegetables seasonally to ensure that your child gets the greatest possible range of nutrients.
10. Watch out for “monochromatic” eating patterns. If your child eats only white foods, such as rice, bananas, bread, and macaroni and cheese, she’s missing out on nutrients.
11. Supplement your child’s diet with an adequate variety of brain-building vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.

Things to Limit or Eliminate from Your Child’s Diet

Just as there are foods that you should promote in abundance, there are other foods that you should work to keep out of your child’s diet.

Refined sugar. This means candy, cakes, and even juices . Occasional treats are okay, but they shouldn’t be part of a child’s daily diet. Watch out for drinks (including fruit juices labeled 100% natural), as they often contain enormous amounts of sugar.

Caffeine. Caffeine has no nutritional value. It’s a stimulant that may affect your child’s behavior, especially his ability to sleep well. In addition, caffeine is a diuretic and may contribute to dehydration.

Trans fats. These fats are found in hydrogenated oils. Most commercial baked goods are loaded with these terrible fats. Buy whole wheat, whole grain, and minimally processed cereal products instead. Avoid fried foods, which are usually cooked in hydrogenated oils (and which, in the Netherlands, have been outlawed as a public health hazard).

Dairy products. Limit dairy intake to three to five servings per week, especially in small children. I recommend this because dairy-based foods are the number one cause of food allergies in children, and kids with food allergies often exhibit behavioral problems. If your child tolerates milk, I recommend buying only organic milk to avoid the hormones routinely fed to cows. If you feel that your child would benefit from an alternative, try rice or soy milk, both of which also provide calcium.

Soda. Avoid it altogether, as it has no nutritional value whatsoever. The caffeine it contains leaches vital nutrients out of a child’s system, and the sugar only wreaks havoc on the metabolic system. Also, a diet high in soda is likely to be low in more nutritional beverages such as milk or fruit juice.

Excessive carbohydrates. If there is a history in your family of mood disorders, alcoholism, or depressive symptoms, your child may need a high-protein diet. Along with being a better, more stable energy source, a high-protein diet will also help a child who struggles with obesity. And it will feed his brain.

Reprinted from: Please Don’t Label My Child by Scott M. Shannon, MD with Emily Heckman.© 2007 by Scott M. Shannon, MD with Emily Heckman. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold

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