Nutrition, Brain Development and Food Allergies: Can Food Allergies Affect Proper Brain Development?

Brain development is most sensitive to a baby’s nutrition between the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years life. The brain is rapidly growing during this period; in fact, an infant’s brain increases in size by 175% during the first year of life and by another 18% during the second year[1] Children who are malnourished during this period do not grow and develop properly so adequate nutrition is of utmost importance[2]. Although all nutrients are important for health and development, certain nutrients play especially important roles. If your LO has food allergies, his/her limited diet can make it more difficult to get enough of these nutrients. Therefore, it is important to understand which nutrients are key so that you can make sure your LO’s needs are met.

  • Protein and Calories

    True malnourishment occurs when there is a prolonged inadequate intake of protein and calories. Studies show that grossly malnourished infants and toddlers suffer both short and long-term consequences, which may include delayed motor and language development, as well as poorer intelligence schools and school performance[3].
  • Fat

    Myelin is a fatty substance that covers and protects nerves. Myelination (the development of myelin around nerve fibers) occurs at a very rapid rate during the first 2 years of life and this is a key part of brain growth and development. Because myelin is composed mostly of fat, fat is an important component of nutrition for infants and toddlers and fat intake should not be restricted during this period.
    • DHA and ARA:

      DHA and ARA are fatty acids found in breast milk. Research shows that DHA and ARA are important for brain and eye development, especially during the first year of life. The levels of DHA and ARA in breast milk and formula has been linked to better visual acuity and cognitive performance1.
  • Iron

    Iron deficiency during the first 2 years of life can result in irreversible cognitive deficits[4]. Bottle-fed babies should receive formula that contains iron and breast-fed infants should receive some form of iron supplementation at around 6 months of age. Most infant starter foods (such as rice cereal and Neocate Nutra) are fortified with iron to meet these needs.
  • Other Nutrients

    Like iron, iodine deficiency during infancy and toddlerhood can have long-term cognitive consequences. Fortunately, iodine deficiency is very rare is developed countries. Research also shows that zinc, choline, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D play important roles in brain development but there is less concrete knowledge about the specific roles they play.

Nutrition and Brain Development for Children with Food Allergies

For most children, milk and milk products are key sources of calories, protein and fats, all of which are critical for proper brain development. For infants and children with milk allergies, its critical that they receive alternate sources of nutrition so that their brains have all the ingredients necessary for proper brain growth and development. This is why its so important to work with a healthcare team to develop an allergy-safe, nutritionally-adequate diet.

  • Breast milk or a nutritionally-complete infant formula provides a full range of nutrition for infants
  • If your LO is formula fed, consider a formula supplemented with DHA and ARA to support brain and eye development
  • If your LO is breast-fed, be sure to supplement iron after 6 months of age and if formula-fed, be sure to choose a formula with iron. Starter foods like rice cereal or Neocate Nutra are fortified with iron to meet these needs
  • Once children transition to solids, be sure to provide a balanced diet to ensure all nutrient needs are met. For children with a restricted diet, a wide variety of foods may not be possible so talk with your healthcare team about appropriate medical foods or supplements, which can be helpful for filling in the blanks

– Mallory West


[1] Abad-Jorge, A. “The Role of DHA and ARA in Infant Nutrition and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes”. Today’s Dietitian Vol. 10 No. 10 P. 66.
[2] Zero to Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.
[3] Benton, D. The Influence of Dietary Status on the Cognitive Performance of Children. Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2010, 54, 457-470.
[4] Beard J. Iron deficiency alters brain development and functioning. J Nutr. 2003 May;133(5 Suppl 1):1468S-72S.

Published: 08/26/2010
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