Children who lack essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids have shown to perform worse academically at school and are seen to be more aggressive in their outward behaviour
As our children grow taller and stronger in their pre-school years, they also become more independent and start to form their own personalities. This is the time when they also start to control what they will and will not eat - liking vegetables one day (at a friend's house!), and not the next. We hear parents saying all the time ‘my child is a fussy eater’, but that’s really code for he/she doesn’t particularly like ‘a lot of things’. Anything wrong with that?
Well yes, unfortunately there is. Children who don’t eat a variety of foods could be missing out on some vital essential nutrients that are needed in this development period of their lives. These are nutrients that contribute to excellent growth, clever minds, physical fitness, and great overall health which will take them into adulthood. This is a serious matter. High numbers of children are failing to grow at the correct rate, and have problems at school, or with childhood obesity. Often this is all tied up with nutrient deficiencies in their diet.
According to government figures, 96% of children in the UK do not get enough fruit and vegetables in their diet. Correct bone and teeth development in children is becoming a major challenge, and children who eat a diet lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids (EFA’s) have shown to perform worse academically at school and are seen to be more aggressive in their outward behaviour.
How have we reached this crisis point? One reason is poor awareness of food by both parents and children. The amount of advertising of unhealthy food only compounds the problem, with parents not knowing who to listen to anymore. A ‘balanced diet’ is starting to sound like a mantra, but what is really meant by this?
Making sure your child gets a good mix of the following suggests a balanced diet:
- Starchy foods i.e. bread, pasta and rice (wholewheat is the best source).
- Large amounts of fruit and vegetables - remember to aim for at least five portions a day.
- Protein foods i.e. meat, fish, eggs, beans and lentils. At least two servings of fish per week (salmon, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna).
- Dairy products i.e. cheese, yoghurt, whole milk or semi skimmed (not skimmed) need to be consumed every day.
- Fat. Yes fat, not the fat around the edge of the lamb chop, which is saturated fat, but essential fatty acids.
So, what are the essential nutrients that may be missing in your child’s diet and where can they be found? Here are the main culprits:
Humans cannot make their own vitamin C, so it must be obtained in the diet. Its function is quite specific as an important synthesiser for collagen and blood vessels. It is also critical to brain function and is known to affect moods. It is a highly effective antioxidant, which protects the body from free radicals, which can cause cancer. Key also is that Vitamin C aids Iron absorption. Always give your child a glass of apple or orange juice (not concentrate) with a meal containing meat or fish, and Iron will absorb more freely. Found in dark green vegetables, oranges, dark berries, and of course apples.
Vitamin A is needed for healthy teeth, skin, and produces the pigment in the retina of the eye - so helping your child to see. It is also an antioxidant (like Vitamin C). Found in eggs, meat, milk, cheese, cod, carrots, and many dark green vegetables.
Vitamin D is needed so that the body can absorb Calcium. Without this, bones are not able to fully form and Rickets can occur (this disorder is on the increase due to teenagers not wanting to eat dairy products fearing weight gain). The good news is that the most significant supply of Vitamin D comes from the sunlight – it does not need to be bright sunlight either - so although we can also find Vitamin D in oily fish (i.e. salmon and sardines), eggs and some breakfast cereals, making sure your child spends time out of the house everyday should ensure the correct quota.
Iron is needed for the formation of blood cells. Haemoglobin (the red pigment in blood) is what transports the oxygen around your child’s body – without it, he/she can’t run! So if your child is always tired, iron may be lacking. Iron is found in meat, fish, dark green vegetables (again), dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, wholegrain (brown bread), pulses, beans and lentils. Many foods are also fortified with iron so check labels.
Folate is very important for the production of new cells. It makes DNA, the building blocks of cells, and is especially important for the rapidly growing infant and young child. Folate can be found in dark green vegetables and spinach is a great source. Lots of foods are fortified with folate, so check labels if your child is not a big fan of spinach.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
These also cannot be made in the body. Diet has to provide them. There are two families of EFA’s - Omega 3 and Omega 6 - which are needed in balance for efficient brain function, the immune system and overall mental health. Oily fish is the best source of EFA’s, but another great source is Flax oil. If your child is showing signs of poor concentration at school, difficulty in memorising things, is a poor reader, has mood swings, or even difficulty sleeping, it is possible that he/she may be deficient in the Omegas. Supplements are a good second best option for absorbing the Omegas, but only buy a good brand.
This mineral is predominant in the formation of bones and teeth. It can only be obtained through the diet. Calcium regulates muscle contraction (including the heartbeat) and helps blood to clot normally. Without vitamin D, calcium won’t absorb, so the two go hand in hand. Found in dark green leafy vegetables (again!), seeds, nuts, almonds, wholemeal bread, cows milk, dairy products in the main, it’s even in water (hard water that is).
Fibre is ESSENTIAL for a healthy bowel movement. Many children in the UK suffer with constipation. The best way to prevent constipation is to increase fibre in the diet. Good sources are fruit, vegetables, wholegrain rice and pasta, nuts, seeds, and cereals.
Water is the best fluid intake a child can get. They should drink plenty of it to prevent dehydration, and constipation, six to eight glasses per day is about right. Tap water is absolutely fine.
Overall, fruit and vegetables seem to be the foods to opt for every time to provide your children with the essentials discussed above. The EFA’s are only found in oily fish or flax oil, so try the ‘ten times’ rule where you present a food ten times to your child before you give up. Most children surrender on the tenth go! If all else fails, you can now see that a good mix of fruit and vegetables are a very good plan to make sure that your children don’t miss out on the important nutrients required to make them healthy adults. This can come in the form of fresh produce as well as freshly made juices, smoothies and vegetables soups. And don’t forget to get them to join in with the purchase and the preparation – that always motivates, and can help teach your child essential facts about a balanced diet to pass on to their own kids!