Foods To Build Brilliant, Resilient Brains

It’s alarming to think that in any given year, about 20% of our kids are affected by mental health difficulties. Fortunately, one area of research showing particular promise in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders is the emerging branch of medicine “Nutritional Psychiatry”.  This is concerned with feeding the minds of our kids, in order to protect them from the burden of mental illness. While the evidence base is still growing, rigorous systematic reviews and meta-analysis have demonstrated that eating healthy foods is associated with a reduced likelihood of mental health disturbance such as depression and anxiety in children and a significant relationships exists between “unhealthy” diet patterns and poorer mental health.

Some Fabulous Facts about the Brain

  • It’s 60% fat, 20% of which are “essential fats” which must be brought in by food and cannot be made by the body
  • “Mood balancing hormones” or brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are made directly from the proteins, vitamins and minerals provided by the food you eat
  • Other foods have a role in supplying the antioxidant vitamins, minerals and enzymes which “clean up” the brain and keep it healthy

What are the Essential Ingredients to Building a Brilliant, Resilient brain?

Well – have you ever wondered what the brain feels like? Grab a slab of tofu and you’ll experience the consistency of the brain! It’s smooth and wet and a bit spongy thanks to its main ingredients – fat, protein and water. The brain is made up of the same things, brought in by what we eat and drink – so it makes sense that what you feed your kids on a daily basis could have an impact on their brain function, mood, behaviour, sleep and well-being.


Poor old “fat” has received a bad rap over the years – but growing brains actually can’t thrive without it. Certain fats known as the essential fatty acids or omegas 3s are especially important as the body can’t make them, so they must be brought in by food and these make up about 20% of the brain. Omega 3s have been found to be protective in a range of mental health presentations, including major depressive disorder.

Fish is a major source of omega 3 and worldwide data has found a strong correlation between fish consumption and protection from depression and suicide.

It’s not all good news when it comes to fats. Saturated fats (from butter, lard, whole milk, cream, pastry, coconut and palm oils) and hydrogenated- or trans-fats (unsaturated vegetable oils that have been refined and hardened) are very unfriendly for the brain giving it a hard, ridged texture which makes it less functional – no one likes hard, rigid tofu – right? In addition, too much of these types of fats can also set off free radicals which can actually cause harm to the brain and lead to longer term issues such as dementia. Definitely best to limit these and fill growing tummies with other nourishing options. Remember – fats are very filling – go for a little bit of the best!

Omega Brain Food tips:

  • For a healthy brain feed your kids plenty of foods high in Omega 3 fats and limit the saturated kind.
  • The richest sources are:
    • Fatty fish – especailly sardines, mackerel, pink salmon, trout, herring and tuna. Children should have at least two serves of fatty fish per week
    • Nourishing oils such as flaxseed, soybean and canola
    • Nuts and seeds like chia seeds and walnuts
  • Practical Snack ideas: Matchbox sized serve of walnuts or add chia seeds to cereals and baked items such as pikelets or banana bread
  • Family meal ideas: Pink salmon or tuna patties, salmon pasta bake made with tinned fish, tuna potato salad, tuna and tinned bean salad, stuffed capsicum salmon melt with rice,  nicoise salad, fish croquettes, sardines on toast, tuna / salmon toasties. Remember you can make a salad dressing with a teaspoon of canola or flaxseed oil , sprinkle some nuts on a salad.


A resilient brain needs chemicals or neurotransmitters in order to work and these chemicals have a role in regulating moods and emotions. And guess what? These are made from food as well! Amino acids are the small building blocks that make up the proteins in food and these constituents go into forming the body’s many components, including neurotransmitters such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine. For example, serotonin, which is associated with feelings of contentment, is made from the amino acid tryptophan which is very high in eggs, lean meat, milk, free range poultry and legumes.

The right balance of neurotransmitters are essential for kids to be cool, calm and alert. The wrong mix can create many symptoms, ranging from difficulties in sleeping to feeling unmotivated, anxious or depressed. Make sure your kids eat a wide variety of nourishing protein-rich foods for a brilliant, resilient brain!

Brain Building Food Tips

  • To help top up your child’s supply of brain-chemical making proteins, make sure they have a variety of protein rich foods
  • The richest sources of brain chemical building blocks are
    • Eggs, fish and lean meats
    • Wholegrains such as grainy breads, brown pasta & rice, oats
    • Sesame & sunflower seeds
  • Snack ideas: apple crumble slice with sesame and oats, sunflower seed muesli, sunflower seed pesto dip, oat and seed protein balls
  • Family meal ideas: oat and sesame crumbed chicken, lean meat and three veg (BBQ, grill or roasted) with a brown rice or pasta salad, veggie frittata, eggs done anyway on toast, tinned fish pasta dish
  • How much? A sprinkle of nuts and two eggs would fulfil the protein requirements of an 8 year old for a day

Remember, no need to dash out and stock up on protein powders or specially formulated protein products – kids get plenty of protein in the foods they eat.


It may come as a surprise to know that the brain generates enough power to beam an LED light and information in the brain can travel faster than a formula 1 racing car (approximately 268mph for those who like details!) To fuel all of this activity, the brain needs glucose. In fact the brain chews through 20% of all the calories our kids manage to bring in over the day and it can only survive on glucose.

Glucose….. That’s sugar – right?


Well kind of.

It seems the minute sugar is mentioned these days, many parents develop temporary hysteria believing the common myth that  sugar will send their children “hyper”. Well, take a breath and hang in with me. Not all sugars are created equal… the kind we’re talking about here is the champion of all sugars –  complex carbohydrates –  which eventually, after lots of work in the gut become glucose, vitamins and minerals. It’s a fact that self-regulation or the ability to control behaviour and impulses, drops with blood sugar levels which can turn your child into a hungry and angry grouch!

These slow releasing,complex carbohydrates provide benefits for memory and cognitive performance. Perhaps this is because they ensure a more even and sustained supply of glucose which fits with the research that the best way to ensure that your child’s brain is functioning at its best is to offer a regular supply of foods with carbs, throughout the day, say in 3-4 hourly intervals. Preferably, this should also provide other vitamins and minerals at the same time, not just sugar or glucose. So what are the magical foods that fit these criteria?

Foodie Tips to Fuel the Brain:

  • For a happy, healthy, alert brain, include regular sources of complex, tummy-filling carbohydrates as a strategy to make sure that your kids have the best possible behavioural and cognitive functioning.
  • The richest sources are:
    • Wholegrain bread & pasta, wholemeal flour, basmati rice, oats
    • Vegetables especially sweet potato and other root vegetables
    • Beans and legumes
  • Snack ideas: oat slice, rice pudding, banana toasties, carrot and parsnip muffins
  • Side dishes: sweet potato mash or chips, roasted root veggies, roasted chickpeas
  • Main family meals toasted bean tortilla, chickpea and lentil curry, four bean con carne, four bean mix with pasta or basmati
  • How much? 4-7 serving spread throughout the day , this is roughly one serve (e.g. a slice of bread or half cup of pasta) with each meal plus one snack either side.

When it comes to “how much” this is very individual and you can get too much of a good thing! Kids’ bodies are full of wisdom – your job is to offer them nourishing foods and their job is to trust and listen to their bodies to know when it has had enough. This will ensure they don’t end up storing away too much energy for a rainy day, meaning they will gain weight.


All of this intense brain activity generates wastes, so the brain needs foods that can clean it and protect it from damage – that is, foods that are high in antioxidants.

There are a few different types of antioxidants provided by food and the ones we’re interested in are vitamins and minerals; all of which are supplied directly by the food we eat.

List of Foods to Keep the Brain Squeaky Clean!

Brain Cleaner (antioxidant) name Foods which give us heaps!
Selenium Brazil nuts, mushrooms, broccoli and fish
Vitamin A Dairy products and fish, dark green and yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruit
Vitamin C Fresh fruits such oranges, grapefruits and kiwi,strawberries, red, yellow and green capsicum, tomatoes, raw dark leafy vegetables
Vitamin E Vegetable oils, avocados, sweet potato, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, nuts, peanut butter
B group vitamins Wholegrain and fortified cereals, pulses, nuts, cereals, lean meats, peanuts, bananas, green leafy vegetables, dairy products
Zinc Red meat and cheese

Not only are vitamins and minerals needed as brain cleaners, they also have other essential jobs like helping convert the amino acids, our protein building blocks, into neurotransmitters. The vitamins of interest here are the B group and minerals; magnesium, selenium and zinc. As you can see in the above table, they are found mostly in plant foods such as whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as in dairy foods, fish and meat.

The mental health and behavioural benefits of foods for children rich in vitamins and minerals are indisputable and remember all of these are widely available in foods – so generally there’s no need for multivitamin supplements.

Brain Cleaning and Building Food Tips:

  • The recipe for success here is to eat a wide variety of foods from all of the food groups
  • The Veggie group can be the most challenging for busy families so try these tips:
    • Add canned or frozen veg to any meat wet dish such as bolognaise, stews or stir through sauces
    • Keep frozen veggie soup in the fridge and serve for a quick lunch or dinner entree
    • Serve veggies and dips as snacks
    • Have a bowl of prepared salad ready to go in the fridge for serving over a few nights
    • Add grated veggies to savoury muffins and other baked goods or pancakes and pikelets
    • Get the kids in the kitchen and help prepare their meals
    • Model eating veggies yourself: kids do what you do; not necessarily what you tell them!


Water! It makes up about 80% of the weight of the brain and even a small drop in hydration can affect a child’s concentration, memory, alertness and cognitive skills . This one is a no brainer! Make sure your child has access to water, especially while at school and watch out for too many dehydrating foods such as salty, flavoured rice crackers, chips and other processed foods as well as caffeinated “energy drinks”.


What’s the gut got to do with the brain, you ask?? Well…. This is a relatively new, interesting and exciting area of research termed psychobiotics. The gut is now being labelled the second brain.  Early research suggests an important role of  “good gut bacteria” (known as the microbiota) in influencing brain development, behaviour and mood. A healthy gut microbiota may have important implications for the prevention and treatment of common mental health disorders. And guess what? The best ways to keep a child’s gut healthy and full of good bacteria is with nourishing food! That is, to grow and feed lots of healthy bugs in their gut. You can do this by :

  1. Offering plenty of indigestible, bacteria feeding dietary fibres from these foods:
    • Garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage
    • Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
    • Custard apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate.  Dried fruit (eg. dates, figs)
    • Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats
    • Cashews, pistachio nuts
  2. Include foods enriched with probiotics or fermented such as yoghurt and Kefir drinks. For the more exotic eater or if its part of the family’s cuisine – olives, sauerkraut, Kimchi, and miso soup.
  3. Offer Flavonoids found in brightly coloured fruits &vegetables such as red cabbage and beetroot

A good sign that your child has a healthy gut full of good, brain nourishing bacteria is that they’ll do plenty of ripper farts! And to make all those stinky farts worthwhile –  The benefits of a healthy gut don’t just stop at mental health, but there is promising research that it supports a healthy immune system too to protect against allergy, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease!

Putting it all Together

So, I know what you’re thinking – that’s all very well and good, but some of you would be happy to get your kids to eat anything at all, especially healthy foods and many of you are busy working parents and often pleased that any sort of dinner makes it to the table. Before you pop down to the pharmacy to buy yourself some multivitamins and fish oil tablets, be aware that these can never replace the powerful, complex, elegant nutritional synergy which nutrients from foods offer.

Even little improvements may have an impact on mental health, so aim small and start somewhere. Kids will not go hungry – so if healthy foods are offered often enough, they’ll come around to the idea – especially if you’re eating these foods yourself! Keep it simple and don’t forget to ask your children for their ideas and help too.

By encouraging and promoting eating these foods you’re helping your children to achieve their best potential and protect them from illnesses of the brain. We’ve accepted for some time now that healthy eating is essential to good physical health – well, the evidence is certainly growing to suggest that this extends to the physical health of the brain, in turn translating into the emotional well-being of our children – building brilliant, resilient brains!

For a quick read, offer a variety of these wonderful foods to your kids, every day: “Foods to Build Brilliant, Resilient Brains” . Pin this cheat’s sheet to the fridge and ask the little ones to tick off the foods they have eaten that day!

In summary –  the evidence is mounting to support the belief that good tucker builds a healthy mind;  one which can concentrate, emotionally regulate, motivate and contemplate as well as brilliantly resilient to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

The key messages are

  • limit saturated fats and low nutrient dense foods
  • offer a variety of nourishing foods such as: fish, unrefined wholegrains, colourful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and vegetable oils, lean proteins and dairy foods.

This recipe will provide them with the 6 essential, protective brain ingredients;

  • slow release carbohydrates
  • protein building blocks
  • vitamins & minerals
  • essential fatty acids
  • antioxidants
  • good gut bacteria

Give it a go – all children deserve a Brilliant, Resilient Brain!

Cheat Sheet – Foods to Build Brilliant, Resilient Brains!  – Laura Kiely Accredited Practising Dietitian

Carbs barley

basmati or brown rice

bread grainy wholemeal

cereal wholegrain fortified

couscous wholegrain



pasta wholegrain

rye bread or crackers

wheat bran

wheat germ

Dairy feta

kefir drinks



Fruit bananas

dates dried

figs dried











white peaches

Lean protein eggs

lean red meat

poultry- free range

Nourishing oils avocado





vegetable oils

 Fish Herring


Salmon pink / Atlantic




Nuts and seeds


brazil nuts

chia & sesame seeds

sunflower seeds


Veggies asparagus

baked beans





custard apples

fennel bulb


green peas








raw dark leafy’s

red kidney beans

savoy cabbage


snow peas


spring onion

sweet potato



yellow, orange & red veg

Other Kimchi

miso soup


References – Read more here!

  1. Patel F, Fisher A and Hetrick, et al. Mental health of young people: a global public-health challenge. Lancet 2007; 369: 1302-1313
  2. Jacka FN, Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to next?, EBioMedicine 2017;
  3. Lai JS, Hiles S, Bisquera A, Hure AJ, McEvoy M and Attia J. A systematic review and meta- analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2013; 99 (1): 81–
  4. O’Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden SL, et al. The relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Public Health 2014; 104:e31–e42.
  5. Khalid S, Williams C, and Reynolds, A. Is there an association between diet and depression in children and adolescents ? A systematic review. Brit. J. Nutr. 2017; 116: 2097-2018.
  6. Appleton KM, Rogers PJ, Ness AR. Updated systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of n23 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on depressed mood. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:757–7
  7. Grosso G, Pajak A, Marventano S, Castellano S, Galvano F, et al. Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. 2014 PLoS ONE 9(5): e96905. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096905
  8. Bloch M. and Qawasmi A. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the treatment of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomatology: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 (Available online: Accessed 12th March, 2017
  9. Scott, S. Integrative Approaches to paediatric mood disorders. Altern Ther Health Med 2009; 15 (5): 48-53
  10. Barnard N, Bunner A and Agarwal, U. Saturated and trans fats and dementia: a         systematic  Neurobiology of Aging 2014; 35: S65eS73
  11. Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute. Micronutrient Information Centre. (Available from: Accessed 12th March, 2017)
  12. Andrew P, DeFilippis MD and Laurence S. Understanding Omega 3s. Am Heart J 2006;151:564-70
  13. Young S. How to Increase Serotonin in the human brain without Drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007. (Available online 32(6): 394–399 accessed 12th March 2017)
  14. Van de Weyer C. Changing Diets, Changing Minds “how food affects mental well-being and behavior” 2006. (available online: Accessed 10th March 2017)
  15. Mahan L. & Escott-Stump S. Krausse’s Nutrition and Diet therapy. 11th Elsevier (USA). 2004
  16. Benton, D and Nabb, S. Carbohydrate, memory and mood. Nutrition Reviews 61, 5; S61-S67
  17. Flora S. and Polenick C. Effects of sugar consumption on human behaviour and performance. The Psychological Record. 2013; 63: 513–524
  18. Woolraich M, Lindgren S and Stumbo, P. et al. Effects of diet high in sucrose or aspartame on the behaviour and cognitive performance of children. NEJM 1994 330 (5): 301-306
  19. Kohn N, Toygar T, and Weidenfeld C. In a sweet mood? Effects of experimental modulation of blood glucose levels on mood-induction during fMRI. NeuroImage 2015; 113: 246– 256
  20. Renata M, Rogers P and Nelson M. Glycaemic index and glycaemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial. Brit. J of Nutr. 2011; 106: 1552–1561
  21. Belisle 2004 Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children Brit. J of Nutr 2004; 92, Suppl. 2: S227–S232
  22. Mann J, and Truswell A S. Essentials of Human Nutrition, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, New York, USA. 2007.
  23. Gesch, C B, Hammond, S M, Hampson, S E, Eves, A, Crowder, M J. ‘Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial’, Brit. J. of Psychiatry 2002; 81: 22- 28, accessed August 13, 2012
  24. Bar-david Y, Urkin J, Kozminsky E. The effect of voluntary dehydration on cognitive functions of elementary school children. Acta Pediatrica 2005; 94: 1667‐
  25. Deans, E. 2017. Microbiome and mental health in the modern environment. Jour of Physiol Anthrop; 36:1
  26. Diaz Heijtz R, Wang S, Anuar F, et al. Normal gut microbiota modulates brain development and behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2011; 108:3047–3052.
  27. Dash S, Clarke G, Berk, M and Jacka, F. The gut microbiome and diet in psychiatry: focus on depression. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2014: 28 (1) p1-6
  28. Sandhu K.V, Sherwin E, Schellekens, H, Stanton C, Dinan T.G, Cryan, JF. Feeding the microbiota-gut-brain axis: diet, microbiome, and neuropsychiatry. Res. 2017; 179: 223–244
  29. Christian L, Galley J, and Hade E. et al. Gut microbiome composition is associated with temperament during early childhood. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 2015; 45 : 118–127
  30. Monash University. FAQs for the high fibre, high prebiotic diet. (Available Online: accessed 12th March 2017)
  31. Jacobs D, Gross M and Tapsell L. Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. Am. J. of Clin. Nutr. 2009 (Available online: Accessed 10th March 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s