In this digital age, online learning is becoming a norm. More than ever, children are staying at home more than the past with distractions such as gaming devices, televisions etc. As we all know, a balanced diet with exercise can help ensure nutrition adequacy and support children’s health and growth. In Hong Kong, it is recommended to eat a healthy balanced diet in accordance with the healthy eating guidelines of the corresponding age group. For example, children aged between 6 to 11 are recommended to have 4 bowls of grains, 3 to 5 taels of meat or alternatives, 2 servings of milk and at least 2 servings of vegetables and fruits respectively.
A positive cognitive development promotes better school achievement. Protein is crucial for muscle growth, brain development and cognitive function. Study shows that malnourished children often perform poorer on neuropsychological tests, cognitive function tests (i.e. cognitive flexibility and memory) and executive function tests (i.e. selective attention and working memory) when compared to nourished children1. Protein malnutrition may cause stunting in early childhood, which is also associated with poorer brain growth and development, poorer IQ, thereby affecting cognition and behaviour outcome and school achievement in later age 1-3. Therefore, it is important for children to have adequate protein according to their age and physical activity levels to meet their daily needs and reduce likelihood of protein energy malnutrition.
Food sources of protein – meat, dairy, cheese, beans etc.
Protein rich food such as meat and fish is also a good source of zinc. Zinc is one of the key nutrients which is essential for immune health and cellular activity involving metalloenzymes, for example DNA and protein synthesis 1,2. Although the precise mechanism between zinc and brain development is still unclear, there are studies suggesting a positive association between zinc and cognitive outcome, particularly on motor skills and executive function such as attention and memory 1,2,4. This is because zinc is thought to be involved in neurogenesis where zinc deficiencies could affect normal neurotransmission, influencing neuropsychological behaviour such as attention and motor activity.
Food sources of Zinc include – dark leafy vegetables, red meat, seafood, milk or alternatives, cereals etc.
Iron is suggested to play a role in executive functions. Iron involves in neuron myelination, haemoglobin synthesis and also a cofactor for a number of enzymes, specifically in neurotransmitter synthesis. Most studies have highlighted that iron deficiency may impact brain areas such as the hippocampus, changes in dopamine metabolism due to altered serotonergic neurotransmission and dopamine receptors 1,5. As a result, the incidence may impact the cognitive function especially in attention, IQ and concentration. Moreover, some studies have suggested a significant association between haemoglobin concentrations and cognitive performance 5. Therefore, adequate iron levels may promote adequate haemoglobin production, hence to support cognitive function development and academic achievements.
Food sources of Iron include – dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, nuts, red meat etc.
The human brain contains approximately 60% of lipid content. Thus there are existing literatures that suggest adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids and maintaining such lipid compositions are crucial for children development, as they play an important role in brain tissues. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids – Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is a precursor of DHA/EPA that can be found in plants such as flaxseed and nuts; where DHA and EPA can be found mainly in fatty fish and seafood. In particular, DHA/EPA are likely to be more beneficial to health because ALA conversion to DHA/EPA is relatively slow in humans. There is emerging evidence suggesting omega-3 fatty acid may play a role on behavioural and learning performance 1,2,6. Adequate omega-3 fatty acids may optimize both verbal and non-verbal cognitive development, visual perception, attention, as well as executive function in children. It may also support memory and reaction time especially in younger adults. In particular, DHA is critical in cognitive function and is thought to be related to memory outcomes, with evidence suggesting that adequate DHA may optimize the speed of completing memory tasks 2,6.
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include – fatty fish, seeds, nuts.
Having a balanced diet promotes nutrition adequacy. Parents should be aware that dietary recommendations and requirements for children and adolescence should be individualized and dependent on body weight, composition and physical activity. If you’re unsure of whether you have adequate and optimal levels of nutrients, please get in touch with your healthcare provider.
Written by Jason Lam, Nutritionist, Rev Wellness
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