Laying good nutritional foundations in our children is a complex business. Many factors affect a child’s health, such as genetics, the mother’s diet and health status before and during pregnancy and childhood environmental and physical factors, all of which will determine the different sensitivities children will have to foods and their environment, as well as their individual nutritional requirements. But ensuring proper nourishment in a child’s early years of development and growth will go a long way to laying down the essential foundations for good health in later life.
A good quality wholefood diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables, healthy protein, complex carbohydrates and essential fats is the aim, but we all know how picky and faddy some youngsters can be! Parents also have to contend with the constant barrage of junk food promotions which challenge good dietary choices. But despite having more food options than ever before, an increasing body of research tells us that our children may still be nutrient deficient. The Chief Medical Officer recommends vitamin A, C and D supplementation for children aged six months to 5 years, but a State of the Nation report on Dietary Trends in the UK suggests that whilst these recommendations should be followed “they are not enough to bridge the dietary gap across the population.”
The report goes on to state that intake of vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc in particular, appears to be on the downturn in children and youngsters through their teenage years with teenage girls particularly low in iron, vitamin A, folate, calcium, zinc and iodine.
About 70% of the body’s immune system is found in the digestive tract. Our “friendly” bacteria not only form the primary “workforce”, defending the gut against harmful invaders but also improve absorption of nutrients and make vitamins, including B vitamins, biotin and vitamins A and K as well as promoting normal bowel movements. You may also have heard of the “gut-brain” axis, referring to the effect that the gut microbiome may have on brain function and mood.
It is important to note that in a child’s early years the digestive system is still quite immature and this system may need extra support. A plant-based diet that is high in naturally fibre-rich fruits and veggies will encourage healthy bacteria. Foods that naturally promote a healthy balance of friendly bacteria include “live” yoghurt, cottage cheese containing “live cultures”, sauerkraut and fermented foods, sourdough bread and bananas.
An interesting finding to come out of a recent clinical trial in Italy, showed that children with obesity who took probiotics had a reduction in waist circumference, BMI, insulin resistance and E.coli in their gut, suggesting that they may have modified the gut microbiota and affected the body’s metabolism.
Consisting of a minimum 60% fat, the brain is the fattiest organ in the body. Peak brain growth occurs in childhood, so it is easy to understand the importance of providing plenty of essential omega 3 fats to support and enhance optimal brain development. The important omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in oily fish but unsurprisingly, it seems that our kids are not too keen on eating regular portions of oily fish! The Dietary Trends 2019 report shows that weekly intakes for those aged 4 to 18 years were just 14 grams – equivalent to one-tenth of a portion (140 grams). The strong taste and smell of some oily fish may be a potential barrier for some children and teens so it makes good nutritional sense to give them a daily omega 3 supplement, sourced from fish oils, which will contain the all important fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Optimum amounts of nutrients are required by a child’s body as it is in a constant state of growth. Supporting the foundations with a good multivitamin and mineral supplement can help to ensure that the most important bases are covered, without making every mealtime a battleground.
Vitamin D helps with the absorption and utilisation of calcium which, along with magnesium, is a major developmental nutrient for growing bones and teeth and muscle function. Calcium is found in almonds, small oily fish, green vegetables, dairy and tofu, whilst leafy green vegetables, nuts, avocados, lentils and beans are rich in magnesium.
Vitamin D is not only necessary for healthy teeth and bones but is also an important part of your child’s immune armoury. Our main source of vitamin D is not food but rather via sun exposure on the skin, however this is of course in short supply in the autumn and winter months. The Department of Health recommends that babies who are being breastfed are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth, whether or not the mother is also taking a supplement containing vitamin D. They also recommend that all adults and children over the age of one year should take a 10 microgram (400iu) supplement of vitamin D. The amount of supplemental vitamin D needed will however, vary from person to person and this may be the minimum amount necessary, especially if long hours are spent indoors on digital devices instead of outdoors in the sunshine!
Interestingly, recent research in The Journal of Nutritionfound that children aged 6-12 with low vitamin D levels are more likely to have behavioural problems during adolescence.
Over the last 20 years, a significantly lower intake of iron has been recorded in girls aged 4 to 10 years. Iron is a vital mineral that is particularly important for making haemoglobin, a protein contained in red blood cells that transports oxygen round the body, as well as being essential for a healthy immune system. Iron intake may be particularly low if a child is vegan or vegetarian. Tiredness, lack of energy and increased susceptibility to infections are common symptoms of a mild iron deficiency.
The 2019 Dietary Report concludes that efforts must continue to be made to improve the British diet, but in the meantime, both adults and children should bridge dietary gaps with a multivitamin and multimineral as well as an omega-3 supplement, appropriate to their age group.
So it is reassuring to know that by supporting our children with essential, good quality nutritional supplements to underpin the diet, we can go some considerable way to maintaining normal growth and development.
(1) HSIS Dietary Trends Report 2019: https://www.hsis.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/HSIS-Dietary-Trends-report-2019.pdf
(2) Dr Flavia Prodam, University of Piemonte Orientale, Italy – impact of bifidobacteria on children with obesity.