Foods Overlooked in the US May Boost Kids’ Brain Power

Foods Overlooked in the US May Boost Kids' Brain Power

A naturally-occurring nutrient found in soybeans and other legumes may support children’s cognitive abilities and attention spans, new research suggests.

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Soybeans are rich in a nutrient called isoflavones, which are also found in chickpeas, peanuts and other legumes. Previous research has linked high consumption of isoflavones with a reduced risk of heart disease , stroke and even some types of cancer. Increasingly, studies have also linked isoflavone with improved cognitive function.

Now, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have investigated the relationship between soy isoflavones and children’s attentional abilities using an EEG scanner to record electrical activity in the brain. Compounds found in soy products, like soy milk, tofu and edamame, may support brain processing in children. “No other studies have examined the association between soy isoflavones and attentional abilities using EEG or similar measures to record electrical activity generated by the brain,” Ajla Bristina, a neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said in a statement.

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The study analyzed data from 128 children aged 7 to 13 and investigated their general intellectual abilities as well as their information processing speed and attention.

Across all age groups, the children tended to consume low levels of isoflavone-containing soy foods. “Soy consumption for individual participants ranged from 0 to 35 mg/day,” Bristina said. “To put this into perspective, an 8 fl. oz serving of soy milk provides about 28 mg of isoflavones, a serving of tofu provides about 35 mg and half a cup of steamed edamame provides about 18 mg of isoflavones.”

However, those who did consume more soy foods showed faster response times during the attentional tasks and faster processing speeds, although there was no clear association between soy isoflavone intake and general intellectual ability.

“Our study adds evidence of the importance of nutrients found in soy foods for childhood cognition,” Bristina said. “[However,] soy foods are often not a regular part of children’s diets in the United States.”

Of course, this study is purely observational and more work needs to be done to understand the mechanisms behind these associations. “Correlational studies like this are only the first step,” Bristina said. “To better understand the effects of eating soy foods on children’s cognitive abilities and the precise amount of isoflavone intake necessary to elicit faster response times will require intervention approaches.”

Some people are allergic to soy, and for many others eating too much can cause digestive problems so it is important to consume it in moderation. That being said, if you are looking to add more soy into your diet, Bristina recommends starting with snacks like roasted edamame, soynuts and soymilk, as well as tofu, tempeh or soy-based nuggets.

Bristina will present the research at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, NUTRITION 2024, in Chicago on July 2.

Is there a health problem that’s worrying you? Do you have a question about soy? Let us know via health@newsweek.com. We can ask experts for advice, and your story could be featured in Newsweek .

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