Top 5 Nutrients for children
It is essential at any age to ensure our bodies get the nutrients they need to sustain good health. Getting the correct nutrients in the right amounts is vital, and when it comes to children this is especially important. Children have different nutritional needs to adults. They require more of certain things to ensure the healthy development and growth of their skeleton and muscular system, brain development and immune function, to name just a few. Ensuring children’s nutrition is correct at this early age, has a profound impact on the health of them as they develop into adults, and can make a big difference on how healthy they are in adulthood and into old age.
Recent research suggests that today’s toddlers and children are consuming more calories and protein than recommended, too much salt and not enough fibre and omega 3 fats. All of this combined is putting children’s health at risk and setting them up for increased levels of obesity in adulthood and increased risk of other health problems. Although all nutrients provide varying health benefits, and should ALL be part of a healthy diet in the correct proportions, there are certainly some very key ones that are even more important for children to have in their diet regularly, so let’s take a closer look at these.
Children’s brains grow and develop rapidly. From the time of birth to age five, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life, in fact by the age of five, 90% of the brain has already developed and it is therefore paramount that during these very early stages of childhood, we literally ‘feed the brain’. Eating the right nutrients at this time has a direct impact on learning and development as children grow older.
Although there are many nutrients that help with brain development, the B Vitamins have been found to be essential for every aspect of brain function. There are eight B vitamins all of which are water soluble, which means our body does not store these vitamins and we therefore must make sure that we consume them regularly in the diet in order to provide the amount that the body needs. B6 and B12 are especially important B vitamins. Over the last few years, research has also started to look at the link between the nutritional status of children as a potential etiological factor in some cases of autism, especially those associated with attention and communication disorders. B vitamins especially have been focused on for this research with some positive results to be found, although more research is needed in this area to give conclusive proof of their benefit.
The eight B vitamins are found in different food types, so variety is definitely key here. Quite a few foods are now fortified in B6 such as cereals and other grains, but the highest general sources of B6, are salmon and tuna and meats such as chicken and pork. Chickpeas, sweet potatoes and butternut squash are also great sources, all of which can be easily part of a child’s diet, even if there needs to be some disguising of it!
B12 is found almost exclusively in animal based products, which is why it can be one of the main vitamins vegetarians and vegans can be deficient in. Like B6 it is found in the meats and fish mentioned above, along with eggs, milk and cheese.
Probably the best know mineral that is known to be important for children, calcium is essential for the healthy development and growth of the skeleton and teeth and also plays an important role in muscle, nerve and heart function too. Without it, bone deformity’s will develop, the most well-known one being rickets. Although this was a very common disease in the 20th Century, we have in recent years seen an increase of rickets in children here in the UK. This is however likely to be caused not just through a lack of calcium in the diet, but also low Vitamin D levels (which have also been on the rise in the UK), as Vitamin D is crucial for the absorption of calcium in the body. This highlights the importance of each of these nutrients and shows that some nutrients work together in the body to be effective. Foods highest in calcium are dairy products, such as milk and cheese and yogurt and these should be part of a healthy diet for children and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways too. Delamere Dairy goats’ milks, cheeses and yogurts are all a great source of calcium and are especially tasty too!!
Beans and dried figs are a good plant source of this mineral and many foods, like B6, are now fortified in calcium so look out for this on food labels.
Vitamin D is harder to get in the diet as approximately 90% of it is provided by sunlight, so ensuring your children play outside and are exposed to sunlight (for a small time 10-15 minutes without sun protection) is very important. In fact one of the groups most at risk of Vitamin D deficiency is the under-fives, so taking measures to maximise sun exposure, but in a safe and responsible way can really boost levels.
Building a healthy and strong immune system is vital, and again ensuring this is done at an early age can really help build robust immunity for years to come. Zinc is a mineral that has a big part to play in immune function, and just as in the case of Calcium and Vitamin D which work together, using Zinc together with Vitamin C is really effective when it comes to immunity.
Even a small deficiency in zinc can have a profound effect on immune function and with children under five classified as one of the at risk groups for a zinc deficiency, it’s even more important to ensure zinc is a regular part of a child’s daily diet. Red meat such as beef and lamb are a rich source of zinc along with beans and dairy products. Dairy products are especially good as the zinc found in this food source is in a very bioavailable form meaning it can be used by the body straight away. Chocolate, of the dark variety only, also contains zinc, and although children tend to prefer the milk and sweeter varieties of chocolate over dark, melting it over ice cream or putting it in baking or making a hot chocolate with it, is a good effective way of making sure they are getting the healthy benefits of dark chocolate.
Fibre is crucial for the health of the digestive system, in particular the bowel. However we now realise that fibre is actually just as vital for providing other health benefits too.
Research shows that fibre helps maintain normal blood sugar levels that stabilise energy levels and also reduces the risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Fibre is also important in the fight against cancer, as we know that adequate fibre intake reduces the risk of certain cancers including colorectal cancer. So with all that in mind, it’s clear to see the importance of fibre in the diet and that’s why it’s such a big deal, however despite that most UK adults and children fall very short of consuming the recommended daily levels of fibre. Many toddlers and children can have problems with constipation, and lack of fibre can be one big cause of this.
Fibre is ONLY found in foods deriving from plant sources and is not present in animal based foods, which are high in protein. Best food sources of fibre include beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, berries and cereals and you should aim to give children at least one high fibre source food with each of their meals and also as a part of any snack they may eat. Leaving skin on fruits and vegetables, incorporating pulses and beans into meals, buying wholegrain pasta and cereals are all easy ways you can slowly start increasing fibre levels in your children’s diets.
Omega 3 Fats
It can be very difficult to get children to eat fish, but the earlier you introduce it into their diets the better chance you generally have of at least finding some fish they will eat and this is important because oily fish contains the all essential Omega 3 fatty acids (oily fish includes salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, fresh tuna, anchovies and trout). Omega 3 fats are vital for brain function and mood regulation and with mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, on the increase in children, this nutrient is of great importance. Despite this most children in the UK do not consume enough of this.
It has been found that many people that suffer with depression have low levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, so ensuring children get enough from a young age could help protect and offer a therapeutic effect on mental health status later in life. 50% of the brain is actually fat and most of this is actually Omega 3 fats, so this fact perhaps helps to highlight just how important this nutrient is for the brain and for mental health.
The importance of consuming Omega 3 fats in childhood is not limited to brain function and mental health either. It also has a key role to play in good immune function and its consumption in childhood has been shown to help protect against allergies and boost immunity.
Getting children to eat a varied and balanced diet can be challenging, and many people can give up trying after a few attempts. Perseverance is crucial here. We know that children will eventually start trying foods they had perhaps earlier declined if you keep putting in on their plate. Be persistent, even if they don’t eat or touch in the first twenty times, one day they are likely to if it keeps reappearing! The earlier that a range of foods can be introduced the better, as children will become familiar with these foods over time so these then become normal. This is easier when they are toddlers than when they are older. The above article highlights the importance of perseverance when it comes to your child’s diet and although they may not thank you now, they will certainly thank you later when they are leading their healthiest life.
- B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review, 2016. Nutrients
- The Role of Vitamins in Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Do We Know, 2019. Journal of Molecular Neuroscience
- National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2014. https://www.nice.org.uk/news/press-and-media/millions-of-people-at-risk-of-low-vitamin-d-need-better-access-to-supplements-to-protect-health-says-nice
- Public Health England. Vitamin D: All you need to know, 2014 https:// problemsgov.uk/government/publications/vitamin-d-for-healthcare-professionals-and-the-public
- Zinc and immune function, 2002. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- Omega-3 Treatment of Childhood Depression: A Controlled, Double-Blind Pilot Study, 2006. American Journal of Psychiatry
- Importance of Omega 3 in Childrens Nutrition, 2017. Pediatrics