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By Sarah Pittman Graduate Student in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois

The young adult human brain represents only 2% of body weight but requires 20% of the body’s resting energy needs, but this is not true for children. At age 10, a child’s brain represents 5-10% of body mass and consumes 1.5 times the oxygen per gram of tissue compared to an adult’s brain.1 This goes to show the importance and remarkable amount of energy the brain needs to function.1 

As kids are back in school, it is important to think about what foods they should be eating to get optimum “brainpower” to be able to learn as much as they can in the classroom. Some of the most important years of brain development are in the early years of life, making nutrition during childhood so incredibly important. So what are the best “brainpower” foods? 

Important minerals in brain health include iron, zinc, iodine, copper and selenium help with emotions, behaviors, memory, and motor coordination.1 

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder globally; affecting an estimated 2 billion people.1 Children with iron deficiency can have developmental delays and behavioral problems and have difficulty paying attention in or outside of the classroom.5   

Zinc deficiency can occur if the diet lacks animal source foods or if a diet is high in maize since phytates found in maize interferes with the absorption of zinc.1 Zinc deficiency can present as stunted growth, deficits to motor development and impaired development.1,6 

Although there have been mass efforts to improve iodine deficiency globally, it still remains the leading cause of preventable brain damage.1 This deficiency can cause impaired growth, infant and neonatal mortality causing detrimental neurodevelopment in fetal life, infancy and childhood.9 

Important vitamins in brain health include: B vitamins, choline, and vitamin A. B vitamins are critical in brain function in that they primarily act as coenzymes in energy production, DNA/RNA synthesis, repair, and methylation, etc. Vitamin B 12 and B 9 are very important in the diet for brain function and deficiencies in childhood can result in developmental delays, neurologic problems and a diverging growth curve.3,4 

Choline is incredibly important in the diet for brain development and the normal function of all cells.7,8 And, although choline deficiency is very rare, it can cause muscle damage, liver, kidney and pancreas damage and hinder the developing brain.8 

Although these brain nutrients are especially important in children, it is in everyone’s best interest to eat a well-balanced diet with these and other essential vitamins and minerals!

What foods do you eat that you consider “brainpower foods”?


1. Goyal MS, Iannotti LL, Raichle ME. Brain Nutrition: A Life Span Approach. Annual Review Of Nutrition. 2018;38:381-399. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-082117-051652.

2. Nutrition & Academic Performance – Today’s Dietitian Magazine. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.

3. Vitamin B12 deficiency in children – Stichting B12 Tekort. Stichting B12 Tekort. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.

4. Folate-Deficiency Anemia (Child). Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.

5. Iron-Deficiency Anemia (for Parents) – KidsHealth. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.

6. Black MM. Zinc deficiency and child development. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;68(2 Suppl):464S–469S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/68.2.464S

7. Office of Dietary Supplements – Choline. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.

8. Sanders LM, Zeisel SH. Choline: Dietary Requirements and Role in Brain Development. Nutr Today. 2007;42(4):181–186. doi:10.1097/01.NT.0000286155.55343.fa

9. EN P. Iodine deficiency in children. – PubMed – NCBI. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.


Photo by Canva.