We’re constantly told that we are what we eat, that the dietary choices we make are important to how we develop our bodies and nourish our minds. But how do nutrients like antioxidants work, exactly?
WORDS ANTOINETTE TAN
A preschooler’s brain is an energy monster; it uses twice the amount of fuel (glucose) than that of an adult, states a new study led by Northwestern University and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. This study is the first to pool existing PET and MRI brain scan data to highlight that a huge quantity of resources is required to fuel a developing human brain. This has to do with the synapses and connections in the brain, when a lot of learning takes place.
Why Feed the Brain?
”Adequate nutrition is necessary for normal brain development,” says Sarah Sinaram, senior dietitian at Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre. “When a child is adequately nourished from conception through infancy, the essential energy, protein, fatty acids, and micronutrients necessary for brain development are available during this foundational period, establishing the basis for lifetime brain function.”
“The well-nourished child is also better able to interact with his or her caregivers and environment in a way that provides the experiences necessary for optimal brain development. Children who are not adequately nourished are at risk for failing to reach their developmental potential in cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional abilities. These abilities are strongly linked to academic achievement and economic productivity.”
According to Dr Han Wee Meng, principal dietitian at the Nutrition and Dietetics Department of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, “A child’s diet is important to optimise his physical growth and cognitive development. Without an optimal diet, a child would not be able to obtain all the necessary nutrients for his optimal skeletal and mental growth. A poor diet has a direct impact on limiting the child’s growth and subsequently a lack of energy would affect the learning ability. Poor nutrition can also result in deficiencies in micronutrients, which can be associated with poor immunity.”
Dr Han adds, “Antioxidants help to protect the body from free radicals and hence protect the brains and body cells from oxidative stress and damage. As the brain is predominantly made of fat tissues and has a high circulation of oxygen, it is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress. When a child’s diet is rich in antioxidants and brain-boosting nutrients, it helps to provide the brain with nutrition to prevent damages and enhance development. Thus, when a child is healthy, it allows optimum absorption and utilisation of the nutrients in the diet, which would lead to desirable outcomes.”
How Does it Work?
According the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, researchers with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry have discovered that memory cells in the hippocampus could communicate better with each other and better relay messages when Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA) levels in that region of the brain were higher. This could explain why eating fish, DHA or Omega-3 fatty acid helps improve memory. A key finding was also that additional stores of the DHA is deposited in the brain, thereby preventing declining DHA levels with age.
Another study by the University of Oxford has found that higher levels of Omega-3 DHA (the group of long-chain fatty acids found in seafood and algae) are associated with better sleep (with a direct relation to learning and behaviour, as shown in their other studies). Over 300 school children participated in a randomised placebo-controlled trial, where they were given daily 600mg supplements of algal sources over 16 weeks. Results showed that higher blood levels of the main Omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain provide fewer sleep problems, including parasomnias and bedtime resistance.
What to Eat?
Dr Han thus recommends salmon. “It is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, which is essential for brain growth and function, since DHA is the predominant structural fatty acid in the central nervous system. Thus, the availability of DHA is crucial for brain development.”
However, Dr Han advises, “Deep-frying the fish may destroy the Omega-3 fats significantly. Baking, broiling and steaming causes minimal Omega-3 fats losses. Other factors include the type of salmon, health of the fish, freshness of the fish and overcooking the fish may influence the fat content.”