In her column for MyDomaine, Michelle Davenport, PhD, a registered dietitian and founder of baby food company Raised Real, breaks down baby nutrition, the essential nutrients infants need, and the foods that contain said nutrients.
Figuring out what to feed tiny humans who depend on the right nutritional building blocks to grow their delicate brains and bodies can be tricky. Especially when you consider that nutritional deficiencies can permanently impact development. At this critical time, babies require a variety of essential nutrients, some of which aren’t easily absorbed. For babies under age one year of age, breastmilk and formula provide most of the necessary nutrition, and carefully selected foods can fill in any nutritional gaps. When creating recipes for Raised Real, I’m always power-coupling ingredients to make it as easy as possible for babies to receive all the essential nutrients.
Here, I’ve done all the legwork for you and compiled a list of the top seven nutrients babies need (and the foods that contain them).
Essential Fatty Acids
Store-bought baby food is often fat-free (and full of sugar), which isn’t ideal. Babies depend on healthy fats to grow their brains and nervous systems properly, and omega-3 fats are the most important of these. They are found in plants, fish, and seafood. Pro tip: To add omega-3 fats to a baby’s diet, try egg yolk, avocado, coconut, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and sacha inchi oil. A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics gave parents the green light on nuts, so adding nut butters can kick up the healthy fats too.
Babies lose their iron stores from mom around 6 months of age, right around the time they start to eat baby food. This is also when the risk of developing iron deficiency is highest. Breastmilk is low in iron, so it’s critical for babies to get it through food. Iron is vital to brain development, learning, memory, and even behavior development.
It’s also important for overall growth and body function, because we need it to make red blood cells. Aside from animal sources of iron like meat and liver, plant-based sources include Iegumes like beans, peas, and lentils. To increase the absorption of iron, especially from plant sources, pair high-iron foods with those high in vitamin C—think chickpeas and cauliflower, or black beans and red pepper. One more pro tip: Increase iron (and zinc!) absorption from grains simply by adding garlic.
Choline is an essential nutrient for brain development. One of the most choline sensitive areas of the brain is the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory, so getting enough choline in the very first years can positively impact memory for life. My favorite choline-rich meals incorporate quinoa and broccoli, which are both excellent sources of choline and pack a heavy punch when it comes to other super nutrients. Pro tip: You can add choline to any meal by slipping in a cooked egg yolk.
Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K play critical roles in every single system of your baby’s body. Vitamin A is necessary for sharp vision and strong immunity. Vitamin D controls calcium absorption, and thereby bone, muscle and heart function, immunity, and even cancer prevention. Vitamin E is needed for healthy immune systems and properly functioning blood vessels. Vitamin K plays an important role in bone density, vision, and brain development (for optimal learning and memory). Because all these vitamins are fat soluble, they need fat in order to be absorbed. Pro tip: Adding avocado oil to carrots can increase the absorption of beta-carotene by up to 15 times.
The beautiful colors you see in fruits and vegetables are created by compounds called phytonutrients (which literally means “color nutrients”). These anthocyanins, carotenoids, and flavonoids have protective anti-inflammatory properties. Because many of these phytonutrients are contained in the outer layers and skins of colorful foods, they require a little manipulation to ensure they’re absorbed. Pro tip: By blending purees for your baby, you can actually increase the phytonutrient content.
Turmeric is having a moment, and it’s all because of its bright yellow compound called curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that can protect the body from inflammation and even cancer. If that doesn’t already make you want to sprinkle turmeric on everything, studies have shown that it may be one of the few foods that can actually protect from leukemia. Pro tip: Adding black pepper to turmeric can increase the absorption of curcumin by 2000 percent.
We’ve all heard about the importance of folate during pregnancy—it’s critical for proper closure of the neural tube in the early stages of brain development. Moving on into infancy, folate plays a large role in everything from ensuring proper brain function by converting amino acids into neurotransmitters to supporting the heart, digestive, and nervous system through its interactions with essential fatty acids and vitamin B12. Pro tip: Some great sources of folate include kale and broccoli.
What do you feed your baby to help them get all the nutrients they need?