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Child Health & Nutrition: Facing New Challenges

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Stephanie Karl, Clinical Nutritionist – UPANDRUNNING Sports Medicine Center, Dubai

We are currently facing new challenges with the epidemic of childhood obesity and micronutrient deficiencies such as calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids. As well as the increasing prevalence of mental and behavioral disorders.

The first 1000 days of a life from conception until roughly a child’s second birthday, is the brains 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.

Balanced Diet Comprises:

  • 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), calcium (enriched dairy alternatives).

Encourage healthy eating habits

Whether toddlers or teenager’s, 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 balance of foods over the day and week. It classifies foods according to nutrients into “five” groups and encourages small serving sizes form each layer to help build a meal. It does not exclude foods but indicates that small servings of treat foods happen occasionally.

Picky eating amongst 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 or insist on getting what they want. You don’t want to create a battle around food and therefore make the rules clear that healthy foods come first, and treats come second.

Breakfast is an essential start to the day for growing bodies and focused minds

Breakfast choices that combined a variety of foods with a balance of nutrients to allow for growth, provide slow acting carbs, fiber to keep full and promote a healthy digestion, and a token of fat, are associated with more positive outcomes for diet quality, micronutrient intake, weight status and lifestyle factors.

  • Toast with peanut butter
  • Eggs with spicy potato and vegetables
  • Yoghurt with low sugar cereal and 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.

  • Regular family meals provide comfort.
  • Family meals offer opportunity to catch up on your kids’ daily lives.
  • Mealtimes enable you to “teach by example.”

You provide the quality and the child will decide the quantity!

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 fiber, 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 fiber and are digested slowly, providing longer-lasting energy. They include whole wheat or multigrain bread, high-fiber 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…Exercise is a key factor to health, confidence, and well-being

  • Play with your kids. Throw around a football; go cycling, skating, or swimming, 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!

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