Mothers who wish to boost their babies' IQ often speak or sing to them while in utero or put them in front of Baby Einstein videos. But what if you could optimize IQ simply by serving them a healthful diet?
A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests just that. Using questionnaires given to mothers, British researchers investigated the eating habits of nearly 4,000 children at the ages of 3, 4, 7 and 8½. The scientists corrected for the mothers' education level, social class, consumption of fatty fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The children whose diets consisted of sugary, fatty, processed and convenience foods at age 3 had a slightly lower IQ (almost 2 points) by age 8½. On the other hand, toddlers who ate more salad, fish, pasta and fruit gained one IQ point by age 8½. Interestingly, a child's diet between age 4 and 7 did not seem to affect the IQ.
Lead researcher Dr. Kate Northstone points out that since the brain grows at its fastest rate during the first three years of life, diet can have an impact.
"It is possible that good nutrition during this early period may encourage optimal brain growth," she says. Previous research found head growth during this time is linked to intellectual ability.
Weighing in is Angela Lemond, RD, a Plano, Texas, family nutrition specialist and mother of two who blogs at MommyDietitian.com. "The best thing you can do to set your child up to maximize the types of foods they eat-which impacts cognition and health overall-is to be a good role model. Eat the foods you want your children to eat," she says.
Lemond points to several critical periods when diet can affect brain development:
In utero. The quality of the mother's diet directly influences how the baby's brain develops. "Adequate brain formation is tied to maternal weight gain and the achievement of vital nutrients that form the brain such as essential amino acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids (including omega-3), B vitamins (especially folate), and vitamin D, along with the minerals calcium and magnesium," Lemond says.
Early infancy. Due to the superior quality of breast milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a child nurse for at least the first year. However, studies show that even colostrum and short-term breastfeeding yields long-term benefits.
Later infancy. Once it's time to add stage 1 solids (infant cereals, pureed single-ingredient fruits and/or vegetables), warm up your baby to eating solid food. "This is a very strange sensation for them at first. Allow them to play with the spoon and get messy. The more comfortable a baby is starting the eating process, the better success you will have going forward," Lemond says.
Toddlerhood. Expose your child to all
types of foods and flavors so they're comfortable choosing a
variety on their own when they are older. "Picky eaters are often
created by well-intentioned parents deleting foods off the child's
list after they witness rejection," Lemond says. Resist your
instinct to not allow your child to go hungry by offering him foods
you know he'll eat. Instead, continue exposing him to a variety of
foods, including the ones being rejected.
While it's never too late for healthy eating habits, this study recognizes the importance of getting started on the right foot early. A healthful diet affects not only physical health, but it can also impact your child's intelligence (and perhaps standardized tests down the road).
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
See more of Christine's stories here.