Evidence that prenatal and early childhood nutrition play a role in proper brain function and the development of mental illness

by Jess Sherman

Thanks to a pioneering researcher in Australia, we have some solid, published evidence that prenatal and early childhood nutrition play a role in proper brain function and the development of mental illness.

Dr Jacka’s groundbreaking 2013 study looked at the diet of 23,000 mother/child pairs from pregnancy through to age 5. Among this group, poor diet was shown to increase rates of depressive thoughts, tantrums, anxiety, aggression, and outbursts in the children – behavior that is predictive of mental illness. Most interesting was that the mother’s diet was equally as important as the child’s diet.  The researchers concluded that prenatal and early childhood nutrition can play a preventive role in the development of mental illness (1).  The team continues to explore the connection between food and the brain.

We have an epidemic of brain disorders amongst our children. 1 in 5 children is dealing with a mental health issue – this includes autism, ADHD, learning disorders, anxiety and depression (2).  I encourage all parents to keep brain function on their radar because mental illness begins in childhood 70% of the time.

With statistics like that, it’s time to talk prevention.

As a holistic nutritionist I am trained to understand that no one part of the body functions in isolation; the body is a complex web.  With that in mind, biological factors that influence brain function can be broken down into 5 categories: Genetics, poor digestion, stress, toxins, and nutrition.

Of those 5 factors, nutrition is foundational, as it plays a role in each of the others. So let’s talk diet.

A maternal and early childhood diet that is high in healthy fats, antioxidants, fibre and phytonutrients and low in processed foods, refined grains, and sugar is protective of the developing brain (3-6).  Possibly more important is an eating pattern that focuses on stabilizing blood sugar and supporting digestion. (7)

If you are pregnant (and particularly if you have a family history of mental illness), or your young child is showing concerning signs of anxiety, depression or any other issue involving brain function or behavior, we know enough right now about the connection between mental health and nutrition to leverage food as a powerful tool for prevention and reversal in the early stages.

Decades worth of clinical experience, and emerging scientific study that tell us that, if we want to raise a generation of kids with healthy brains, we should:

  • increase healthy fats,
  • increase high quality protein,
  • increase fiber,
  • increase phytochemicals and antioxidants
  • stabilize blood sugar
  • avoid processed food and transfat
  • limit sugar
  • increase fermented food and probiotics

Making these dietary changes during pregnancy and in early childhood can help our kids function better, feel better and learn better.

Some Brain Supportive Foods:

✓ salmon

✓ sardines

✓ walnuts

✓ almonds

✓ sunflower seeds

✓ red meat

✓ shellfish

✓ eggs

✓ pumpkin seeds

✓ liver

✓ leafy greens

✓ broccoli

✓ cauliflower

✓ sesame seeds

✓ brazil nuts

✓ avocado

✓ blueberries

✓ pomegranate

✓ garlic



  1.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24074470
  2. http://mindfulcharity.ca/make-a-difference/#support
  3. http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=210386
  4. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0024805
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20048020
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19880930
  7. Grain Brain

About the Author

Jess Sherman is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Board Certified in Practical Holistic Nutrition (CAHN-pro).  She teaches parents what they need to know about how food impacts behaviour, learning and development, and helps them feed their kids and themselves real food without losing their minds in the process. You can learn more about Jess and her work by visiting http://jesssherman.com/. You can also connect with Jess on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jessshermanRHN  and Twitter: https://twitter.com/jessshermanRHN


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  the International Maternity and Parenting Institute.

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