Importance of adequate nutrients and a balanced diet
Adequate nutrition plays a pivotal role in ensuring a child’s proper growth and development, sustaining a robust immune system, and preventing severe health conditions.
The nutrients found in food serve as the body's primary source of energy and for various metabolic processes. During times of illness or when a child engages in intense mental or physical activities, their energy requirements increase. Insufficient energy intake can lead to weakness and hinder healthy growth.
A well-balanced diet is essential to provide a child with the full spectrum of nutrients needed for their body's growth and development. This includes proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Furthermore, a balanced diet promotes the maintenance of a healthy weight in children, which is a key factor in reducing the risk of obesity and associated health issues.
It's worth noting that beyond physical health, a balanced diet also nurtures a child's cognitive and emotional development, contributing to their overall well-being.
Incorporating a nutritious diet in childhood lays the foundation for lifelong healthy eating habits. This, in turn, helps prevent the development of unhealthy food choices, ultimately reducing the risk of chronic health problems in adulthood.
- Carbohydrates, the main source of energy for the body can be found in grains, cereals, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
- Proteins are the vital basic building blocks of organs and tissues, and a significant component of our genetic material - deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). Proteins are abundantly found in meat, eggs, legumes, corn, and dairy.
- Healthy fats are essential for developing the eyes, skin, good immune system, and absorption of various vitamins, and supports normal brain development in growing children. Babies obtain fats through formula or breast milk. Older children obtain it through vegetable oils, butter, nuts, fish, and seeds.
- Fibres help regulate healthy bowel movements and maintain sugar and cholesterol levels. Fibres also prevent the build-up of potential carcinogens and toxins in the intestine.
Vitamins and minerals are abundant in grains (bread, cereals, corn, rice, and pasta), dairy (milk products), fruits and vegetables (including tofu, legumes, and nuts), and meat (lean meat, eggs, chicken, and fish).
- Vitamins are essential for various metabolic and anatomical processes in the body. Some of the critical functions of vitamins in the body include nerve conduction, formation of the blood components, maintaining proper vision, synthesis of collagen, neurotransmitters, fatty acids, antioxidants, metabolism of macronutrients etc.
- Minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium, sodium and phosphorous are essential for healthy growth. Minerals help in various physiologic functions of the body. These include nerve conduction and muscle contraction.
Common nutritional concerns in children
- Malnutrition: Getting too much or too little of certain essential nutrients can lead to serious health issues such as eye problems, heart disease, diabetes, stunted growth, etc in children. Some signs and symptoms include fatigue, dry hair and skin, night blindness, loss of muscle mass, anxiety and depression, weight loss, stomach problems, enlarged thyroid, difficulty regulating body temperature, delayed wound healing, etc.
Obesity or overweight: Obesity in children is a serious condition which occurs when the child is above a healthy weight for their height and age. A diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats is the major cause of childhood obesity.
When children eat more food than their bodies need for normal development and growth, the excess calories are stored as fat cells for later use. If this pattern continues over time, it will result in obesity. Obesity in children is associated with an increased risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure in adulthood.
Allergies to different foods: A food allergy is an abnormal or violent response of the body to a particular food. This triggers an intense immune response which causes a range of symptoms from being uncomfortable to life-threatening. Food allergy can result in severe symptoms such as cramps, hives, swelling, eczema, difficulty breathing, fainting, low blood pressure, etc.
Some of the common foods which can cause allergies in some children are eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and milk.
Poor nutrition and deficiency disorders in children
- Calcium deficiency: Calcium is essential for growth and development of teeth and bones, and for the optimal functioning of the nerves, heart, and muscles. Bony fish, dark green vegetables and dairy products are abundant in calcium. Calcium deficiency in children causes symptoms such as dry skin, brittle nails, dry hair, muscle cramps, weakened enamel, etc.
- Iron deficiency: The most common symptom of iron deficiency in children is anaemia. This is a condition in which the red blood cell (RCB) count drops, and the ability of the RBCs to transport oxygen reduces considerably. Symptoms of a lack of iron in children include a weak immune system, constant tiredness, impaired brain function, pale skin colour, etc. Red beans, dark green vegetables, seeds, shellfish, organ meat, apples, beetroots, etc., are some good sources of Iron.
- Iodine deficiency: A deficiency of iodine is the most common cause of brain damage in children. It also causes impaired motor and cognitive development. Additionally, it can result in enlarged thyroid glands (causing a disease known as goitre), shortness of breath, weight gain and irregular heart rate in adults. Iodine deficiency can be compensated for by consuming fish, dairy, eggs, seaweed, etc.
- Magnesium deficiency: Magnesium is an essential nutrient responsible for over 300 chemical reactions in the body. It also helps other vitamins and minerals to do their job. In children, symptoms of magnesium deficiency include hyperactivity, fatigue, migraines, restless leg syndrome, muscle cramps, etc. You can help prevent this by feeding your child more nuts, dark chocolate, whole grains, etc.
- Vitamin A deficiency: Vitamin A helps to maintain healthy teeth, skin, cells and bones, and is also responsible for the production of eye pigments, which are essential for vision. Foods abundant in Vitamin A include oily fish, organ meat (liver), carrots, sweet potatoes, dark green vegetables, etc. A lack of Vitamin A results in eye damage which in acute cases leads to a condition called night blindness.
- Vitamin D deficiency: Children with Vitamin D deficiency experience muscle weakness and stunted growth of the skeletal system. It can also result in rickets (soft bones) and delayed development. To compensate for Vitamin D deficiency, feed your child with foods such as egg yolk, fatty fish, cod liver oil, etc. The sun is another good source of this nutrient, so spending time in sunlight will help raise Vitamin D levels.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: This water-soluble vitamin is essential for the normal development and functioning of the brain and nervous system. Symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency include impaired brain function, delayed growth, fatigue, concentration problems, lack of appetite, blood disorders, etc. Vitamin B12 is abundant in shellfish, eggs, milk products, organ meat, etc.
Tips to encourage healthy eating in children
- Eat meals as a family: Eating meals together could foster positive feelings among all family members and allow children to develop healthy eating behaviour. Having food as a family helps children to enjoy the food more.
- Make meals fun: Adding an element of fun to a child’s mealtime can encourage them to eat healthy foods. You can try making fun shapes with fruits and vegetables or include stories like how eating protein will help them have muscles like their favourite comic book hero.
- Limit junk food: Junk food (processed, packaged foods, high sugar/salt products, oily foods) contribute to obesity and various other health problems. Replace junk food with nutrient-rich multi-grain snacks, fruits, nuts, etc, and educate children about harmful effects of too much junk food.
- Introduce new foods: Introduce a wide variety of foods to your child to ensure that their taste buds mature and are well-developed to enjoy different tastes. If your child rejects a specific food, do not immediately put it on the reject list. Kids need to be exposed to a particular food 4 to 7 times before they get used to it.
- Encourage children in meal preparation: Children will be more inclined to consume healthy foods if you involve them in meal preparation. Let them help you in activities like grocery planning, shopping, recipe preparation, assembling a sandwich, etc. Additionally, you could teach them how to identify healthy packaged foods and read nutrient labels while shopping.
- Teach them how to listen to their bodies: It is essential to teach your children to listen to their bodies at an early stage. For example, ask them the question, "how full is your tummy"? Next, you could encourage your children to eat as long as they feel hungry. Leftovers can be kept for later. Never force your children to finish the plate, as it might lead to compulsive eating disorders during adulthood.
Make an appointment at Gleneagles Hospitals
Proper nutrition in childhood is vital to ensure adequate growth and development of the body. If you are unsure if your child is getting enough nutrients, get in touch with us to book an appointment with a Paediatrician for a consultation at your nearest Gleneagles Hospital.