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Feed a Growing Brain: Foods That Shape Up Brain Cells

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Feed a Growing Brain 1
One of the hallmarks of a healthy cell is a pliable, flexible membrane ready and able to drink in the nutrients critical for peak performance and jettison toxins and metabolic byproducts that may cause harm. A child’s brain cells are no exception and will thrive when nourished by a nutrient-rich diet.

Parents can help prime a child’s brain cells for optimal learning by focusing on nutrients essential for healthy cell membranes not only in the brain, but also throughout the body. One of these nutrients is omega-3 essential fatty acids.

The superstar omega-3
When it comes to brain health, two omega-3 fatty acids—ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)—can lend a helping hand, but the star is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). We must consume ALA in the foods we eat because our bodies can’t make it. But after we consume ALA, our bodies can summon a few enzymes into action to convert it into EPA and finally into DHA.

Why is this conversion so important? Both EPA and DHA influence the physical nature of cell membranes and cellular functions, while DHA plays an important structural role in the eye and brain. Trouble is, the rate of conversion is less than impressive. In fact, some researchers report that the body converts only about 15 percent of the typical ALA intake to EPA and DHA.

Now, we don’t have to rely on the body to convert ALA to DHA if we eat enough DHA-rich foods, but sadly, the typical American diet doesn’t come close to providing an adequate intake. For example, health experts recommend a daily intake of at least 650 milligrams for EPA and DHA combined. Yet, researchers report the typical American diet provides only about one-third of this amount—about 100 to 200 milligrams per day.

Good food sources of omega-3 fatty acids
English walnuts, flaxseed, green leafy vegetables such as purslane and spinach, and certain vegetable oils—canola, soybean, flaxseed, linseed, and olive—are particularly good sources of ALA. The only foods that supply substantial amounts of EPA and DHA are fish—particularly cold-water fish such as salmon, haddock, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, and sardines.

A word of caution
Some types—shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—tend to concentrate higher amounts of the toxic heavy metal mercury. So, choose fish that are known to be lower in mercury more often. Think shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish, and farm-raised fish. Or, consider supplementing with fish oil, which contains less mercury compared to fish meat. High-quality fish oil supplements meet strict standards to ensure low mercury content.
Kathleen & Lorna
Co-authors of Eating for A’s


Lorna Williams, MPH, RD, and Kathleen Dunn, MPH, RD 2

Lorna Williams, MPH, RD, and Kathleen Dunn, MPH, RD, are registered dietitians who have been collaborating on health and nutrition projects for over 20 years. Together, they launched EatingFor.com, a fun and educational website focusing on child and teen nutrition, and co-authored Eating for A’s: A month-by-month nutrition and lifestyle guide to help raise smarter kids.

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