In person and on social media, friends and acquaintances compare whose children are the cutest, smartest, most athletic and so on. (By the way, it is unquestionably my children). No matter the bragging points, all parents desire life to be better for their children. That better life starts with a good foundation.
During their first year or two of life, children typically receive nutrition through breast milk or formula, and formula nutritional components are tightly controlled. Once children wean off breast milk or formula, they can eat a variety of food, so parents need an awareness of nutrition needs.
Zinc Supports Healthy Growth Rates
Zinc is essential for normal growth and maturity. It is highly involved in DNA transcription and gene expression. In a review by King, et al, researchers noted zinc-deficient animals who increase their dietary zinc intake achieve benefits in both weight gain and in lineal growth (defined as height or length).1 In human milk, zinc content is greater than 3 mg per liter of milk, but it drops immediately and sharply to less than 1 mg per liter by 6 months.2 Bodily zinc needs must be met through other means, such as formula, complementary foods or supplementation.
A recently conducted systematic review evaluated the effect of zinc supplementation on children under 5 years of age.3 In this study, 78 children were selected and evaluated for growth parameters due to maternal supplementation or supplementation after birth. Zinc supplementation in infancy and early childhood can increase growth outcomes, found the review, which also disclosed a potentially stronger effect after 2 years of age. In another study, a dynamic model was developed for predicting growth in zinc-deficient infants who were given supplemental zinc.4 In this study, researchers found frequent, smaller dosages were more effective than a larger dose of zinc. This conclusion is logical considering the body has no functional reserve of zinc available, thus requiring needs to be met through daily consumption.1
Iron for Energy and Brain Health
Iron is another essential micronutrient. Iron-containing heme molecules carry oxygen throughout the body, and heme molecules carry oxygen to cytochromes (a type of enzyme) that participate in energy delivery. A growing body of evidence suggests iron might have a significant role in neurodevelopment as well. In a systematic review of iron supplementation trials in the first 1,000 days of life found a significant increase of hemoglobin and ferritin stores in anemic children when administered 15 mg or less of iron a day.5 Researchers also found there was no effect of the supplementation on mental development. This is possibly due to a mechanism of inter-organ prioritization in early stages of deficiency.6 During early stages of negative iron balance, the body will prioritize incoming iron and iron stores to red blood cells over all other organs, including neural tissues, such as the brain. Our current common clinical measurements are all concentrated on hematological parameters and cannot detect these early-stage prioritizations. Early iron deficiency anemia can cause long-term alterations in dopamine metabolism, myelination, changes in brain structure and regulation of brain function.7
Choline Promotes Brain Growth and Cognitive Development
Choline is another essential nutrient involved in complex functions, including synthesis of acetylcholine, cell membrane signaling, proper lipid transport and metabolism, and methyl-group metabolism.8 Human breast milk is rich in choline with an average of 158 µmol/L in one study.9 Much of the research regarding the effect of choline on childhood outcomes related to perinatal maternal supplementation. In rodent models, when dams are fed supplemental choline, the pups have improved memory that endures across the lifespan compared to non-supplemented controls.10 In human studies, an increase in maternal consumption of choline, especially in the third trimester, had a significant positive impact on newborn cognitive processing.11 A follow-up study at age 7 found these beneficial effects were still present and detectable.12 While there are some post-natal intervention studies in animal models, the number of human studies is insufficient to draw conclusions, and additional research and investigation is needed.13 Nevertheless, care should be taken to ensure adequate choline is consumed, since brain growth and development is still significant in this age group, and adequate choline supports that growth.
Nutrition for Optimal Development
To fulfill parents’ desires that their children will have good, healthy lives, they need to ensure kids have a strong nutritional foundation. These three examples of zinc, iron and choline serve as guidance to consider as children transition into non-milk or non-formula foods. Food and supplement brands that know some of these considerations can focus on including the right ingredients in products to help provide a good foundation, while still accounting for cultural, dietary pattern, and other preferences.
Stephen Ashmead, MS, MBA, is a senior fellow for Balchem Corp. His area of specialty is in mineral amino acid chelates and their functions.
1. King JC, Brown KH, Gibson RS, et al. Biomarkers of nutrition for development (BOND) – zinc review. J Nutr 2016;146(Suppl):858S-885S.
2. Krebs NF. Update on zinc deficiency and excess in clinical pediatric practice. Ann Nutr Metab 2013;62(suppl 1):19-29.
3. Liu E, Pimpin L, Shulkin M, et al. Effect of zinc supplementation on growth outcomes in children under 5 years of age. Nutrients 2018;37:377-398.
4. Wastney ME, McDonald CM, King JC. A dynamic model for predicting growth in zinc-deficient stunted infants given supplemental zinc. Am J Clin Nutr 2018;107:808-816.
5. Petry N, Olofin I, Boy E, Angle MD, Rohner F. The effect of low dose iron and zinc intake on child micronutrient status and development during the first 1000 days of life: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2016;8:773-794.
6. Cusick SE, Georgieff MK, Rao R. Approaches for reducing the risk of early-life iron deficiency-induced brain dysfunction in children. Nutrients. 2018:10;227-240.
7. Georgieff MK. Long-term brain ad behavioral consequences of early iron deficiency. Nutr Rev. 2011;69(suppl 1):S43-S48.
8. Wallace TC, Blusztajn JK, Caudill MA, et al. Choline: the underconsumed and underappreciated essential nutrient. Nutr Today. 2018;6:240-253.
9. Cheatham CL, Sheppard KW. Synergistic effects of human milk nutrients in the support of infant recognition memory: an observational study. Nutrients. 2015;7:9079-9095.
10. Zeisel S. The fetal origins of memory: the role of dietary choline in optimal brain development. J Pediatr. 2006;149(Suppl):S131-S136.
11. Caudill MA, Strupp BJ, Muscalu L, Nevins JEH, Canfield RL. Maternal choline supplementation during the third trimester of pregnancy improves infant information processing speed: a randomized, double-blind, controlled feeding study. FASEB J. 2018;32:2172-2180.
12. Nevins JEH, Beckman KA, Bahnfleth CL, et al. Maternal choline supplementation during pregnancy improves executive functioning in children at age 7 y. Presented at American Society for Nutrition Annual Meeting, Boston, MA. June 9-12, 2018.
13. Strain JJ, McSorley EM, van Wijngaarden E, et al. Choline status and neurodevelopment outcomes at 5 years of age in the Seychelles Child Development Nutrition Study. Br J Nutr. 2013;110:330-336.