Most of us know that boys and girls are different besides the obvious biological differences. They see things differently, they play differently and they think differently. Is it surprising that studies have shown that they also have different nutritional needs? And not only when it comes to bone and muscle growth but even more importantly, brain development.

Although it’s easy to beat yourself up as a parent, your boy’s behaviour hinges on more than just discipline, parental and social influences and personality. It also depends on breakfast, lunch and dinner and research is showing us the impact of nutrition on cognitive development now more than ever. After all, the nutrients your boy eats play a huge role in establishing his brain’s neural connections, cell signalling and structure. Getting your child to eat the right foods will not only make your life as a parent easier in the long run but will also result in improved test results at school.

There are four golden rules when it comes to growing a healthy brain for a smart and happy boy.

The first rule is to balance his blood sugar. Sugar is the body’s main source of energy but you have to make sure your child is getting the right types and the right amounts at the right time. Too much and especially too much of the wrong kind of sugar means high blood sugar levels, hyperactivity and difficulty concentrating. Making sure that he gets the right kind of complex sugars whilst still limiting his intake is the first step to balancing his sugar levels. Avoid sugary fruit drinks, colas, energy drinks and juice, refined white sugars and white bread, processed snack foods, crackers, chips and commercial cereals. Instead, fill him up on protein-rich meals so that he’ll feel full and won’t crave the sugar as much. Eating regularly and packing snacks for school is also important to maintain balanced blood sugar levels.

The second rule to building a boy’s brain is ensuring essential fats. 60% of our brains are made of fat. The corpus callosum, which is the bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres, is made of fat. The myelin sheath which coats the nervous system is also made of fat. No wonder deficiencies in fats can have huge repercussions on the intelligence and behaviour of our child! And because oestrogen is a fatty carrier, whereas testosterone is not, boys have three times higher need for essential fatty acids than do girls. This also explains why it’s so much easier for men to lose weight than women.

Our modern diets are deficient in good fats so we may have to be intentional in incorporating them into our boy’s lunchbox. Some sources of essential fats include fatty fish like sardines and salmon, avocadoes, coconut oil, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts. A lack of essential fatty acids also causes our bodies to become deficient in serotonin which plays a well-known role in controlling stress and mood.

The third golden rule is ensuring that your boy has adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals which are essential for brain development and function. Vitamin E is found in parts of the brain that are linked to memory, vision, hearing, language development and complex learning. It also plays a role in protecting DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid which we’ve already seen is vital for cognitive function. So pack some sunflower seeds, almonds or a boiled egg into their lunchbox and increase their broccoli intake.

Iron and zinc deficiencies have also both been implicated in children’s brain development and behaviour. Iron deficiency for example, is a well-known cause of impaired cognitive, language and motor development and has recently been correlated with variations in brain structure integrity. Zinc nutrition has also been related to motor, cognitive and psychosocial function in young children, especially boys. Emerging research has shown a correlation between behavioural disorders such as ADHD and zinc deficiency. Improving these levels have been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation.

Finally, the fourth rule to building a healthy boy’s brain is to avoid food additives which can impair brain function and health and cause adverse reactions including behavioural issues. For example, calcium propionate, a preservative commonly used to prevent bread from going mouldy, has been shown to cause irritability, restlessness, inattention, and sleep disturbances in children prone to food sensitivities. Food colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate can also cause hyperactivity in some children. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose also have long lists of reported side effects including brain fog, migraines, dizziness, anxiety, depression and increasing symptoms of ADHD. Aspartame contains “excitotoxins” meaning that in high amounts they “excite” or stimulate brain cell death. Sucralose reduces the amount of good bacteria in your intestines by 50%, leading to an overabundance of bad bacteria which has numerous negative effects on your child’s brain. The good news is that there are healthy alternatives so you can reduce your child’s exposure to food additives. Look for their names or code numbers on food packaging. Bake your own cakes and biscuits whenever possible. Choose foods labelled as containing ‘natural colours’ made from fruit, vegetables and spices and try healthy alternatives such as stevia as a natural sweetener.

These are just the four golden rules to building a boy’s brain by providing them with the right nutrients. Starting good nutrition early in life encourages good eating habits and will inspire your child to make the right food choices later on in life.