Child Health and Nutrition: Facing New Challenges
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Child Health and Nutrition: Facing New Challenges

The new challenges we are faced with is the epidemic of obesity and micronutrient deficiencies as well as the increasing prevalence of mental and behavioural disorders. The first 1000 days of life from conception until roughly a child’s second birthday is the brain's window of opportunity to establish the foundations of optimum health, growth and brain development across the lifespan.

Where once malnutrition was from poverty, we are now faced with the negative effects of undernutrition due to imbalanced diets or diets based on artificial ingredients including formula feeds and processed convenience foods.

What has become alarmingly apparent is the low levels of some critical nutrients, which were highlighted in the Lancet (2008) Balanced Diet, and include the following points:

  • Protein including all amino acids from a wide range of protein foods – dairy, eggs, pulses, meat, fish, chicken and protein grains.
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids from oils and particularly omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish.
  • Vitamins and minerals – calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, choline (egg yolk), folate and vitamins A and D, B6 and  B12. Of these, iron is the most important to ensure it is available in the diet every day. Red meat, pulses, dried apricots and prunes are good sources as well as some green leafy vegetables. Iron needs vitamin C for absorption. 
  • Vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy diets as long as they include iron-rich foods with vitamin C, omega 3 fats from plant sources (flaxseeds and walnuts), B12 (supplementation), choline (soy lecithin) and zinc (nuts and seeds) and calcium (enriched dairy alternatives). 

Busy families, hectic schedules, peer pressure and diets built on takeout and convenience foods, once regarded as a treat, have become mainstream. Switching back to a healthy diet can have a profound effect on children’s health, helping to maintain a healthy weight, avoid certain health problems, stabilise mood and support and enhance focus and learning. Here are some tips to consider:

Encourage healthy eating habits  

Whether toddlers or teenagers, children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most. To encourage healthy eating habits, the challenge is to make nutritious choices appealing. 

The Food Pyramid is still the best and simplest guide to getting the balance of foods over the day and week. It classifies foods according to nutrients into five groups and encourages small serving sizes from each layer to help build a meal. It does not exclude foods but indicates that small servings of treat foods are fine occasionally. 

Picky eating among some children can become a problem if not managed. Sometimes children do need to grow into certain foods, or they are not well tolerated by a young digestive system. Keep offering the food but don’t make it become a battle of wills. On the other hand, don’t give in and offer alternatives – make the rules clear that healthy foods come first and treats come second.

Children are not born with a craving for fries and pizza or an aversion to broccoli and carrots. This conditioning happens over time as kids are exposed to more unhealthy food choices which programmes them to eat only for pleasure. The sooner you introduce wholesome, nutritious choices into your kids’ diets, the easier they will be able to develop a healthy relationship with food that can last them a lifetime. 

Go big on breakfast

Breakfast is an essential start to the day for growing bodies and focused minds. Consider choices that combine a variety of foods with a balance of nutrients, as they provide slow-acting carbs and fibre to keep full and promote healthy digestion, and also a bit of fat. Great breakfast foods are dairy, eggs, soy milk, cheese, wholegrain cereals, vegetables and fruit.  Here are some good breakfast options: 

  • Toast with peanut butter 
  • Eggs with spicy potato and vegetables 
  • Yoghurt with low sugar cereal and fruit 
  • Cottage cheese with nuts and honey or jam 
  • Waffle with yoghurt and maple syrup 
  • Pancake with turkey and cheese and a fruit 
  • Smoothie with chia seeds, milk or alternative and banana 

Make mealtimes about more than just healthy food  

Sitting down as a family to eat a home-cooked meal not only sets a great example for kids about the importance of healthy food, but it can also bring a family together. Given the opportunity, most kids will opt for simple sugar or refined carbohydrate foods over healthy low sugar options. Simple carbs have been stripped of all fibre and nutrients and cause spikes in blood sugar which trigger fluctuations in mood and energy.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are usually high in nutrients and fibre and are digested slowly, providing longer-lasting energy. They include whole-wheat or multigrain bread, high-fibre cereals, alternative grain pastas, brown rice, pulses, nuts, fruit and non-starchy vegetables. Added sugar means a lot of empty calories that contribute to increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, hormone dysfunction, skin problems and dental decay. 

Think critically about the quality of the foods you serve your children and be aware that 15g of carbohydrate in a serving is the equivalent to 1 tablespoon of sugar. A glass of fruit juice and a chocolate spread sandwich may have 6 tablespoons of sugar, a fruit yoghurt may have 2 tablespoons and an iced bun may have 4 tablespoons. Treat foods need to really mean just that.

Finally, make sure to exercise!

Exercise is a key factor to health, confidence and wellbeing. Play with your kids. Throw around a football; go cycling, skating or swimming and take family walks and hikes. Help your kids find activities they enjoy by showing them different possibilities. 

Don’t underestimate the power of nutrition and the long-term effects it has on nurturing a healthy mind and body!

Article by Stephanie Karl, Clinical Nutritionist, UPANDRUNNING Medical Center

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