Science. Healthy food and exercise can help a young brain.

By Sharon Oosthoek, Science News for Stu


Healthy food and exercise can help a young brain.

By Sharon Oosthoek, Science News for Students, adapted by Newsela staff.

In a May 2020 study, researchers showed that a junk food diet can be particularly bad for teen brains. It can impair a kid's ability to think, learn and remember. It's even linked to mental health issues. (Curious to learn more? Read about the study.)

The good news is that you can make food choices that support a healthy brain.

"The brain is the most fat-rich organ we have," notes Alexandra Richardson, an expert in how diet affects the brain and a researcher at the University of Oxford in England. "And where does it get its fats? From what we put in our bodies."

But not all fats are the same. Our brains need a type known as omega-3 fats. These helpful fats are found in fish, flaxseed, and some oils. These fats help build the membrane that surrounds brain cells. Brain cells need membranes to hold them together and to communicate well with each other.

In one 2005 study, Richardson and her team showed improved mental health in children who took omega-3 supplements. The 117 children who took part were between the ages of 5 and 12. All had problems with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. They also struggled with reading and spelling.

Over three months, about half the children took omega-3 pills. The others took look-alike pills with no fats. Such inactive "treatments" are known as placebos. Compared to kids who got the placebo, those who took omega-3 pills showed improved attention and ability to control their hyperactive, impulsive behavior. Their reading and spelling scores also went up. This may have reflected being able to pay closer attention in class.

Junk food may trigger attention-related problems because it does not contain the good fats needed to build healthy brain cells, says Richardson. But downing foods with more good fats can support healthy brains.

Exercise And Young Brains

Research shows exercise can be a good way to fend off damage from junk food, notes Cassandra Lowe. She works at Western University, where together with Reichelt, she has studied kids' brains and nutrition.

Two important things happen in the brain when we exercise. The first is that the brain's reward system — the one that feels good when we do something we like — becomes less sensitive to food cues. While scientists don't quite know why, the outcome is a good thing. "We don't find high-calorie foods as rewarding," explains Lowe.