Smart choices

Mothers who wish to boost their babies’ IQ often employ tactics such as speaking or singing to them while in utero, or putting 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 8-1/2. The scientists corrected for the mothers’ education levels, social classes, and 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 the age of 8-1/2. On the other hand, toddlers who ate more salad, fish, pasta and fruit gained one IQ point at age 8. Interestingly, a child’s diet between the ages of 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.

“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,” says Angela Lemond, RD, a Plano, Texas family nutrition specialist and mother of two, who blogs at

She 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 information 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,” reports Lemond.

• Early infancy — Due to the superior quality of breast milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a child nurses for at least the first year. However, studies show that even colostrum and short-term breastfeeding yields long-term benefits for the baby. While formulas supply adequate nutrition, breast milk provides benefits we have yet to discover.

• Later infancy — Once it’s time to add stage one solids (infant cereal and 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,” says Lemond.

• Toddlerhood — Expose the child to all types of foods and flavors so she’s comfortable choosing a variety of foods on her own when she is older.

“Picky eaters are often created by well-intentioned parents deleting foods off the child’s list after they witness rejection,” says Lemond. Resist your instinct to not allow your child to go hungry by offering her foods you know she’ll eat. Instead, continue exposing her to a variety of foods, including the ones being rejected.

While it’s never too late for children to develop healthy eating habits, this study recognizes the importance of getting started on the right foot early on. A healthful diet affects not only physical health, but it can also impact your child’s intelligence (and perhaps standardized test scores down the road).

Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is the 2011 Illinois Dietetic Association Outstanding Dietetics Educator of the Year. Follow her on Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition.

Sweet and juicy drumsticks

(Makes four servings)


8 chicken drumsticks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/3 cup orange marmalade

1/3 cup hot barbecue sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine marmalade, barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice, mixing well.

Place chicken, skin side up, in 9 by 13-inch pan lined with aluminum foil.

Pour sauce over chicken and bake 1 hour, basting occasionally.

Increase temperature to 400 degrees and bake 15 minutes longer.

NUTRITION: 330 calories per serving, 27 g carbohydrates, 28 g protein, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 450 mg sodium, 0 fiber, 10 percent DV iron, 8 percent DV vitamin C.

Adapted from

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