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Nutrition for children

When it comes to children’s nutrition it is very much a case of, ‘the sins of the father’, insomuch as food preferences are reflective of the environment in which we grow.  How many children have you met who absolutely adore tomato sauce (ketchup)?  Or ask a child what their favourite meal is and chances are the response will include pizza, hamburger, sweets, and ice cream.  None of these choices are included in breast or formula milk, that all infants are exposed to for some time in their early existence.

Photo credit: Vanessa Lewis

Where do children acquire the taste for certain foods?

Those who care for the weaned toddler determine which ingredients will be used in meals.  Generally the carer, who could be a parent, family member or a non-related professional, will be an adult, with their own food likes and dislikes.  Their food choices may strongly influence the choice of meals prepared for the children in their care.

For most of us the sight of a child evokes a strong feeling of protection, care and responsibility.  How many parents state that they will give their life for their child?  And how often are we prepared to step in harm’s way to protect our protégé?  However, when it comes to nutrition it appears that the message is somehow misguided.  I believe it all stems from a time when food, unlike now in more affluent countries, was scarce and the desire to ‘treat’ the young very strong indeed.  Those of you who have grandparents that experienced famine and strife in their lives maybe recall that a treat is always at hand for the young ones to show love.  A small treat, that is, because the most important focus was to ensure that the whole family was fed first.  Home cooked food prepared with ingredients grown in the garden or bought at the local market or grocer was served at least once a day.  The main ingredients included meat, a grain or starch option, and vegetables to bulk up the offering, given that meat was often an expensive ingredient.

Why is nutrition for children so important?

Human nutrition is gaining attention across the globe due to the increase in obesity and age-related diseases associated with diet and lifestyle.  It is becoming apparent that addressing children’s nutrition as early as possible may have a significant financial impact later on in life.

The Diabetes Action Now programme (an initiative of the World Health Organisation and the International Diabetes Federation) projected an increase in people with diabetes in Europe from 33.3 million in the year 2000 to 48 million in 2030.  Comparitave figures for the United States of America are 17.7 million to 30.3 million.  For China the number increase from 20.8 million to 42.3 million.

The economic burden of obesity worldwide is such that medical costs for obese individuals are approximately 30% greater than those of average weight patients (Withrow 2011).  These numbers may be meaningless until that unexpected day you are diagnosed with chronic diabetes and have to access medication and treatment.  Even if you live in a country with national health coverage or you have excellent private medical care, the cost of time off work and travel expenses to regular health treatments can put a strain on any household budget.

What should ideally be included in a child’s meal to minimize the risk of disease?

The three macronutrients that should be included at meals times are:

  • protein
  • carbohydrates
  • fats

Protein is an essential part of our biological make-up.  Foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, legumes (including tofu), nuts and seeds are all excellent protein sources.  These options should ideally be served without any batter or crumbs and are best grilled, steamed or baked.  Deep fried foods are ideally kept to a minimum given that the health risk of heated fats are well documented.

Carbohydrates, in the form of grains and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, are omnipresent at meals and the danger here is overconsumption.  Carbohydrates are quickly accessible sources of energy and it is worth noting that any excess is likely to be stored as fat if your child is not very active – a common occurrence in the age of electronic entertainment and frenetic lifestyles.  Therefore, balance the amount of carbohydrate dense food in relation to the amount of physical activity your child performs regularly.

Most adults have a fear of fat.  That aversion is justified when speaking of fried foods and saturated fat, which have been linked with several age-related diseases.  However, fats in the form of avocado, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, nuts and seeds are essential and play a vital part in healthy brain development.  With the increase in recorded cases of dyslexia, Asperger’s and autism, and other learning difficulties in children, the focus on nutrients for optimal brain development has increased.

The most important ingredient to add to all meals however comes from plant matter.  Fruit and vegetables should make up the bulk of any diet, especially that of a growing child.  The WHO continues to stress the importance of adequate intake of fresh fruit and vegetables for vitamin and mineral uptake and fibre, an essential component of healthy bowel function.  Given that the colour component of any meal is a powerful subconscious incentive for most people, the inclusion of vibrant red, orange and green vegetables and fruit to all meals becomes of paramount importance.  Most food photographs whet the appetite mainly because of the inclusion of colour.

How do we teach our children about healthy food?

No child is ever too young to be exposed to good, wholesome food.  Once weaning has occurred it is imperative that an array of unsweetened and unsalted vegetables and fruit is lovingly and enthusiastically given at all meals.  This is not only kind to your child’s long-term health, it is also less straining on your pocket as your greengrocer generally does not charge and arm and a leg for their produce, whereas you may be charged a premium for something packaged in a jar, tin or a sealed box.

Your child is a precious gift who deserves the best health outcome you can realistically and financially offer.  To see your protégé grow into adulthood and bear their own healthy and happy offspring is a precious commodity many people are denied.

You have given your child the gift of life, now give them the gift of health.

Note:

  • Some food options might be unsuitable due to clinically tested allergies or intolerances and are therefore best avoided;
  • Always refer to a qualified health expert for advice when changing a child’s diet.

References:

Withrow, D. and Alter, D.A. (2011) ‘The economic burden of obesity worldwide: a systematic review of the direct costs of obesity.’ PubMed

World Health Organization and International Diabetes Federation (2004) ‘Diabetes Action Now’, WHO Library Cataloquing-in-Publication Data, available at http://www.who.int/diabetes/actionnow/en/DANbooklet.pdf