How Does Nutrition Affect Brain Development?

Healthy food and adequate nutrition aren’t only vital to keeping our bodies healthy, but they also have a lasting impact on our brains and mental health.

In fact, the effects of nutrition on the brain are extensive, especially for early years and children.

Here at St Peter’s Prep, our pupils’ health and development are at the centre of our focus as an independent primary school. We explore how nutrition is essential to the cognitive development in infants and what types of nutrients and foods children should be consuming.

The Brain and Nutrition

The effects of nutrition on the brain are incredibly complex, and there are many defining factors about what children should be eating and the nutrients they should have within the first 1,000 days of their lives.

The importance of eating correctly during pregnancy and the impact of breastfeeding is a whole separate area of study. For the purpose of this blog, we are mainly concentrating on children who can consume solid foods.

A banana and bowl of smoothy

Early Years Development

It is widely recognised that if a child doesn’t receive enough nutrition, it can reduce cell production and limit brain function and cognitive development.

UNICEF focuses on this throughout their work, emphasising how adequate nutrition is an essential aspect of infant brain development.

With a child’s brain doubling in growth from first entering the world to three years old, it is unsurprising that any damage that occurs at this period is intrinsic to the rest of a child’s life, effectively shaping their brains and how they work. Harvard Health Publishing has released a resonating statement that ‘how the brain begins is how it stays’.

Cognitive Development

Where emotional development is cultivated throughout life and across adulthood, cognitive development is dependent on the first three years of a child’s life.

Cognitive brain progression is essentially how children develop problem-solving skills which help them to understand the world and their surrounding environment. It shapes how they think and how they approach ideas and the situations they encounter.

It can include:

• Memory
• Attention
• Perception
• Learning
• Thinking

Essential Nutrients

Nutrient-rich foods are integral for healthy and sustained brainpower and are fundamental to brain development and early cognitive development.

To ensure a child’s brain can reach its full potential during its development, nutrients needed include:

• Iron – iron is essential for providing a sufficient amount of red blood cells which carry oxygen and support brain development. A deficiency in iron is often associated with cognitive deficits in younger children.
• Protein
• Zinc
• Iodine
• Vitamin A
• Vitamin B
• Vitamin B6
• Vitamin B12
• Vitamin D
• Choline
• Folate
• Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids- Often found in fish oils and Omega 3 fatty acids.

School cafeteria
Essential Foods

Foods which have the featured nutrients in, but are not exclusive to, include the following foods:

• Beans
• Lentils
• Meat
• Fortified cereals
• Bread
• Leafy, dark vegetables
• Baked potatoes
• Meat
• Seafood
• Fatty fish- Salmon provides Vitamin D, which is best sourced from being outside.
• Poultry
• Beans
• Peas
• Eggs
• Soy
• Nuts
• Seeds
• Dairy
• Vegetables- Carrots, sweet potato and spinach are great for providing Vitamin A.
• Infant fortified formula

Nutrition and Focus in Older Children

How our bodies and brain respond to food in terms of focus depends on what is eaten. For example, carbohydrates are the go-to food group for energy. However, there are many different types of food within the carbohydrate category such as pasta, white bread, oats and grains.

Long releasing carbohydrates are required for focus, such as oats, legumes and grains. As energy is gradually released over an extended time, focus remains steady.

On the other hand, other fast releasing foods may create a short burst of energy followed by a dramatic drop.

boiled egg

The Importance of Breakfast

Something we have all heard since our own childhood, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day.’

Providing energy early in the day will help with concentration and focus in the morning. Ideally, breakfast should consist of low GI foods such as egg and toast, baked beans, porridge, Greek yoghurt.

Beyond Food

Early brain development isn’t only dependent on nutrition and external sources such as nurturing and emotional support are also essential.

If you would like to discover more about our traditional and progressive curriculum, and the boarding opportunities at our beautiful school in South Devon, please contact our Director of Admissions & Marketing, Ms Rachel Elliott, on 01395 280335, for a chat and to book a tour. Alternatively, you can email

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