Nourishing Your Child: the essential nutrients needed for children’s physical and mental growth and
“Getting the balance right and optimising early life nutrition is critical for long term health” Tabitha McIntosh
As parents we only want what is best for our children but often it is difficult to know what this is….especially when it comes to food. Did you know that many children in developed countries, like ours, are actually undernourished despite food being plentiful? The food industry has changed dramatically over the last 50 years and along with the increased need for convenience, many children are now eating foods that are low in essential nutrients and full of synthetic, laboratory created ingredients. Let’s take a look at the essential nutrients that our children need for normal physical and mental growth and development.
The macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein & fats
Every child needs a range of good quality carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Carbohydrates provide energy whilst proteins are the building blocks for physical growth. Good quality fats are essential for brain and neuro development.
Kids' diets are often high in simple carbohydrates, like sugar, white bread, pastries, cakes and biscuits. Whilst these foods do provide energy, it is often only for a short period followed by a longer low-energy slump. These foods often also lack other nutrients. It is much better to provide more nutrient-dense foods, offering complex carbohydrates like wholegrains, or additional nutrients as found in fruit and vegetables to optimise the body’s use of this energy input.
Protein is often lacking in children’s diets and yet is essential for their growth and maintenance of cells, cell functions, hormones and antibodies. Protein rich foods include meat, fish, egg, dairy, legumes and nuts.
One of the most common confusions in nutrition is regarding fats. Our bodies all need fats but we need to be careful about the type of fat that we choose, and so do our children. Fat, specifically omega-3s, are needed for neurodevelopment, that is the development of the brain and nervous system. ‘Good’ fats are found in fatty fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Many processed foods contain ‘bad fats’, they may be trans-fats or they are loaded with highly refined vegetable oils.
The micronutrients: vitamins & minerals
Our children need a variety of vitamins and minerals to support the synthesis and function of the macronutrients. Vitamins can help with the release of energy, protection against oxidative damage and boosting the immune system and assisting the myriad of cells’ functions. Vitamins are generally found in wholefoods such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.
In particular, children are often lacking in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin D. Vitamin A is linked to immunity, growth, reproductive development and vision health; it is found in foods like meats, cream, cheese and eggs. Vitamin C is well known for supporting the immune system and can be found in many fruits but also vegetables like red capsicum, cabbage, broccoli and Brussel sprouts. Vitamin D is necessary for the immune system and for supporting skeletal growth. The best way to boost Vitamin D is from safe exposure to the sun (ie early morning and late afternoon for short periods only). Fish, eggs and butter contain Vitamin D too.
Your child also needs a variety of minerals; these again are generally obtained through eating wholefoods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. Minerals help with functions like nerve transmission, muscle contraction, bone and teeth development, enzymes, immune system and lung and heart function. In particular, children need Iron, Iodine, Zinc, Calcium and Magnesium.
Iron – is necessary for cognitive function, learning and memory. It also affects energy levels, immune health and other functions. Iron is found in red meat but also in green leafy vegetables. Certain foods, such as cows milk, can actually reduce the uptake of iron whereas Vitamin C-rich foods can help with the iron absorption.
Iodine – is essential for normal brain development and is found in fish, yoghurt and seaweed.
Zinc – low levels of zinc may affect behaviour, immune health and taste and appetite. It is found in fish, red meat, popcorn, and some nuts and seeds.
Calcium – has a variety of functions but is most well-known for its contribution to skeletal development. Calcium is found in dairy products but is also rich in tinned salmon and sardines, legumes and dark green leafy vegetables too. If you have a child that is intolerant to dairy it is essential to obtain calcium from these other sources.
Magnesium – helps with over 300 reactions in the body ranging from energy production, nerve conduction, muscular activity to immune function and more. Magnesium has a calming affect and has been linked to behavioural modifications. Magnesium is found in wholegrains, green leafy vegetables, almonds, and legumes.
Our children need a variety of good quality real foods to ensure their nutrientl needs are met. The required nutrients can be obtained from their diet if they are eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, starches or grains every day.
If you are concerned that your child may not be eating a nutrient-dense diet and would like help, please book an appointment at https://www.halaxy.com/profile/mrs-julie-landon/nutritionist/357901
Disclaimer: I strongly advise that you do not give your child additional supplements based on this article without seeking further advice from a qualified health professional. Taking too much of any of these nutrients can lead to toxicity problems.
Nyaradi A et al, (2013), ‘The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood’, Frontiers in Human NeuroScience, 7:97: 1-16
McIntosh T, (2014), ‘Nourishing Growing Bodies: Meals and Medicines’, The Natural Paediatrics masterclass, HealthMastersLive