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Children's diet

There is now a significant body of evidence to show both the positive and negative impact of food on childhood development. Obesity rates among children are the highest they have ever been, along with the concomitant type II diabetes. There has also been a rise in learning disorders, with an increasing number of children requiring drugs to modify their behaviour.

What are the most important areas of childhood development and why? 

Having strong bones is really important to avoid postural problems throughout life. Exercise and diet both have an important role to play in ensuring healthy bones. Building bone in your children’s early years is known to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life. Eat your greens! Bone building relies on a number of key vitamins that are primarily found in green leafy vegetables and also in sunlight! 

Many parents nowadays worry most about their child’s mental function and development. Public awareness has been heightened, with regular reports about autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit, and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), all very worrying. There have been a significant number of studies linking cognition and mental function with the quality of children’s diets, leaving us in no doubt about the importance of good nutrition for kids. So what are the really important areas to concentrate on in order to optimize your child’s brain function? 

Food for thought 

Simply put, food is the basic material from which the brain is made. Therefore it follows that quality of intake will influence function. The primary fuel for the brain is glucose, a breakdown product of carbohydrates. Whole foods will provide a steady supply of glucose, without the energy peaks and troughs associated with their refined cousins – and this is so crucial for children – for both performance and behaviour. 

Top brain whole foods 
  • Whole grains 
  • Brown rice 
  • Buckwheat 
  • Millet 
  • Rye
  • Oats
  • Wholewheat & granary 
  • Corn
  • Quinoa
  • Lentils & beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fresh low GL fruit 
  • Berries 
  • Apples 
  • Pears 
  • Citrus fruit
  • Vegetables – especially:
  • Dark green leafy veg 
  • Watercress 
  • Broccoli 
  • Brussels sprouts 
  • Spinach 
  • Green beans 
  • Peppers 
Top brain fats

The brain is nearly 60% fat, including saturated fat and cholesterol! The essential fatty acids (EFAs) that our brains rely upon are the most important element of the diet in relation to children’s mental ability. They also make up the structural components of brain receptors, which receive the messages sent by neurotransmitters. If the message is not received correctly, then a child’s brain cannot respond. EFAs have been found, time and again, to improve both memory and learning. It has been established conclusively that intake of these will modify behaviour, function, mood and aptitude in nearly all children. However, most of us consume too much of one EFA (omega-6) at the expense of another (omega-3).

So where can you find these top brain fats?
  • Nuts – all varieties
  • Seeds – flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower. Ground and sprinkled are best for children. 
  • Cold pressed, organic seed oils
  • Cold water fish – sardines, mackerel, herring, wild/organic salmon. 
  • Other beneficial brain fats are found in eggs, which further boost communication within the brain.
I can’t get my child to eat these!!

If your child initially turns their nose up at these foods, persevere as they are often simply not used to the taste. You will find that if you continue to introduce new foods in a non-pressurised way, they will learn to accept the new tastes and flavours. If you explain to them the importance of eating ‘good’ food, they can learn to see food as fuel and nourishment, rather than a treat or punishment. It helps if you lead by example: your child needs to see you consume these foods, too!

Top brain proteins 

Neurotransmitters are primarily made from proteins, which illustrates the importance of a good daily intake of protein. Protein is made from amino acids and in the brain there are neurotransmitters with specific functions. Certain protein foods need to be included in the diet in order to manufacture each of these. Protein requirements vary with the age of the child and a wide variety will ensure that all amino acids will be provided. 

Good sources of brain-boosting proteins:

Organic fish, lean meat, eggs, yoghurt and cheese (providing there are no allergies or intolerances to dairy). Nuts and seeds – all varieties. Vegetable proteins include beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu and seed vegetables, such as broccoli, peas and spinach.

Brain drain 

It is also important to avoid or reduce a number of substances found in the daily diet of children that can have a negative impact on brain function. Top of the list has to be added sugar and refined foods that act like sugar. Regular ingestion of sweet foods trains the child’s palate, so they will find it difficult to enjoy the healthier options. Peaks and troughs associated with erratic blood sugar also affect a child’s ability to concentrate and have enough energy to get through the day. A child may become overweight, if he/she eats sugary foods regularly and doesn’t have enough energy to exercise. 

Chemicals such as colourings and additives have been shown to wreak havoc on some children’s behaviour and wellbeing. For example studies have revealed that tartrazine (E102), which colours food and drinks yellow / orange, is linked to hyperactivity. It also appears to be connected to asthma and eczema in some children. The advice is to avoid food containing chemical additives and stick to whole, natural produce. For additional benefit, choose organic to avoid growth hormones, antibiotics in non-organic meat as well as pesticides, together with genetic modification in all other foods.  

Bad Fats 

Processed vegetable oils, hydrogenated and trans fats can interrupt the processing of the more beneficial omega-3 and may also contribute substantially to obesity. When eaten on a regular basis, the beautiful smooth running of a child’s metabolism and brain function can be affected. The main culprit foods are cakes, sweets, chips, crisps, deep-fried, battered, and processed food. 

Introducing healthier options 

Undoubtedly, instigating healthy eating habits is good at any age, however doing so in childhood, may offer a lifetime of benefits. Training your child’s palate from weaning is clearly the easiest option. For older children, it may be more of a challenge, especially teenagers! However, there are a few simple strategies for introducing more nutritious options without turning the dinner table into a battlefield. 

  • Try replacing fizzy drinks with fresh fruit juice topped up with still or, occasionally, carbonated water. Use 1 part juice to 4 parts water, as there are still high levels of (natural) sugar in juice. 
  • Fresh and dried fruit meet the need for something sweet. Dried fruits are generally high in minerals and provide bowel-regulating fibre. They do have a high sugar content however, so have a few nuts at the same time (provided there is not a nut allergy) to help to maintain blood sugar balance. Attractive, coloured berries appeal to younger children, which they may also find easy to handle. 
  • For introducing vegetables in a less obvious way, choose the Italian dish ‘frittata’. This is a thick omelette, in which a variety of vegetables, meats and herbs can be included. Once cooked, cut into bite-size chunks and use for snacking. 
  • Pureed fruit stirred into plain organic yoghurt can replace the sugar/artificial sweetener-laden ready-made varieties. It can also be frozen and can therefore provide an alternative to ice cream. 
  • Homemade soup is also great way to introduce vegetables into the diet, without a child being aware that they are eating them! Lightly steamed vegetables, pureed with the cooking juices, together with some cooked chicken, provides a nourishing alternative to sandwiches or biscuits.