We’ve long known that early parenting decisions affect childhood development and may even have a lasting impact on a person’s health.

Science has now quantified what mothers have instinctively sensed: the diets of children in their first thousand days – from conception to around the second birthday – are crucial for brain development. 

Specifically, researchers have identified 11 nutrients linked with high cognitive development in children. Malnutrition in these areas, by contrast, can have lifelong and intergenerational effects that shape intelligence and reasoning abilities. 

“While the brain requires all nutrients for growth,” according to UNICEF experts Sarah Cusick, PhD and Michael K. Georgieff, MD, “protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, choline, folate and vitamins A, B6, and B12 are particularly critical [during the first 1,000 days].”

An easy source of four (protein, choline, iodine, zinc) of these “must have” nutrients are eggs, which health experts are now embracing as a first solid food for infants. The choline content, in particular, is proving to be much more important for brain function than once thought. A recent study out of Cornell University concluded that infants exposed to higher levels of maternal choline during the third trimester have improved information processing speed, an indicator of cognition and intelligence. But more than 90% of pregnant women do not get the recommended daily intake. Eggs are the richest source of choline in the diet besides beef liver.

Eggs include other important brain nutrients like polyunsaturated fatty acids, folic acid, and are one of the most bioavailable source of protein on the planet. That means that growing bodies digest and absorb the protein from eggs faster and more efficiently than other protein sources. 

I like to think of the first thousand days like an investment in a startup company, where little growth hacking tweaks here and there can transform a small nucleus into a revolution. In fact, pediatricians agree that a nutritious diet that includes a variety of foods, including eggs, is one of the most important things parents can do to promote brain development, and physical growth, in their children.

There are long-term negative consequences associated with children who are deficient in these nutrients in their first 1,000 days, including a diminished capacity to learn, poorer performance in school, and greater susceptibility to infection and disease. If you project these consequences out over decades, it could lead to a lower quality of life and significant lost earning potential. 

Interestingly, eggs also act as a brain food during life’s other bookend – the Golden Years. Choline, the same nutrient that is critical to brain development in children, is also linked to maintaining a strong memory. Your brain needs daily doses of choline in order to continue fueling your hippocampus – the brain’s memory center – which means eating choline-rich foods such as eggs are nutritionally important for seniors as well!

Whether it’s you, your toddler, or your parents, it’s important to remember the huge impact that our dietary choices have on cognitive development and health. When it comes to the brain, we literally are what we eat.

Knowing what the brain needs to thrive is critical, so we can pack our diets with the right foods that will check all the boxes.

About the author: Tia Rains, PhD, is the Executive Director at the Egg Nutrition Center, the leading organization in research and education related to eggs.