I was recently interviewed for Children's Mental Health Week to discuss the role of nutrition in
our children's health & wellbeing.
What is good nutrition?
“Good nutrition is eating a balanced intake of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat), vitamins and minerals to meet the body’s energy requirements and support healthy growth and development, both physical and mental.”
How does diet affect children?
“I’m sure we’ve all seen the after effects of a kid’s party! Diet is hugely important in the behaviour and development of children. Poor diet can lead to vitamin insufficiencies such as vitamin D which can affect bone growth, and it has even been shown that a lack of iron may be linked with ADHD behaviour in children. Conversely, giving children too much sugar can lead to blood glucose peaks and troughs which can result in an overtired, over-emotional child. And too much fat by way of chips, crisps, fried foods etc can lead to childhood obesity – a problem which is now prevalent here in the UK.”
What is a balanced meal?
“Try to remember the 3 macronutrients and build your child’s plate from there! Protein is essential for a growing child as it is the building block for new muscle, tissue and organs in the body. This can be meat, fish, yoghurt, nuts & nut butter, beans and lentils.
Carbohydrate is broken down into glucose in the body and is the preferred source of fuel by the brain. White carbs can break down rapidly though, resulting in blood sugar peaks then troughs, and possibly the reason your child never seems full! Swap out refined, white carbs such as white bread, white pasta, white rice, (which have very little nutrient content), for their healthier complex counterparts – wholemeal bread, lentil pasta, brown rice, oats, vegetables. This will ensure a steady stream of energy, and on top, they provide valuable nutrients such as B vitamins and beta glucans which support immunity.
Fat – just as we need healthy fats, so do our children. Omega 3 fats from fish for instance can support our immune system and contribute to brain health. Aim to have 2/3 portions of oily fish per week. These can be salmon or fresh tuna for example – making them into fishcakes is a good way to make it more appealing to little ones. Incorporating coconut oil and nut butter into porridge is a good way of getting good fats into kids easily.
By giving your child all 3 of these at every meal, this should provide adequate and steady energy throughout the day, as well as stabilize their mood and mental performance.”
How much should my child be eating?
“As a general guide, the palm of your child’s hand indicates a portion of veg, of fruit etc… But my advice would be, your child knows what it needs and will eat accordingly. They will generally dictate, and overeating is only really an issue if they’re eating the wrong stuff. Another reason to get healthy habits in order. If your child seems to always be hungry, check the above – are they getting protein, complex carbohydrate and fat with every meal? Chances are their meal didn’t sustain their energy requirements.”
What if my child won’t eat ‘healthy’ food?
“Picky eaters can be hugely distressing for everybody, but they are programmed to survive and will not starve! Try not to use this as a reason to ply your child with ‘treats’ such as pudding or sugary cereals etc, as all this does is show them that these will always be offered. Instead, persist with offering the the healthy plate you’d like them to eat, and if your child only tries a bit of it, then take this as a win. If this doesn’t work, start to smuggle food into their favourite dishes! Blend vegetables such as onion, carrot, broccoli, spinach into their favourite pasta sauce, or when making a shepherds pie, add a tin of chickpeas to the sauce and mash with a potato masher. They’ll never know, and you’ve just added protein and iron to their plate!
A child’s taste-buds change and develop and you’d be surprised what they start to like if it’s offered to them. But this is less likely to happen if all they are offered is junk.”
Do you have any top tips for parents?
“There are many easy snacks out there for kids to graze on – don’t assume just because it’s labelled ‘organic’ it’s healthy. These are convenience snacks and can often be laden with fat and/or sugar.”
“What’s your child drinking all day? Be mindful that cordials, and even smoothies and juices are sugar hits for children. And these soon add up throughout the day. Try to stick to water and reserve juice for a treat, or the weekend. Juice is metabolized quickly into glucose and gives the same sugar peak and trough as sweets, or even cola.”
“Set a time in the evening when eating stops, ideally dinner time. Eating late into the evening can severely disrupt sleep. It may not be as obvious as your child waking you in the middle of the night, but food from the night before can impact sleep cycles which can lead to a sleepy child and affect performance and concentration.”
“Try to avoid categorizing food. If we make a huge fuss about a child eating their vegetables for instance, this can cause a child to fixate negatively on it. Treat fruit and vegetables and other healthy foods as you would any other foods, without alienating them. Likewise, try healthy fun snacks such as carrot sticks or mangetout and hummus, grapes and cheese chunks, pear slices and peanut butter. A ‘treat’ can be whatever you decide it is – it doesn’t have to be sugary sweets or chocolate.”
“Try to encourage mindful eating; eating at regular times, together as a family, and avoiding eating in front of the TV are good habits to get into, and actively encourage a good relationship with food.”
“Try not to get too bogged down with it all! Much of a child’s eating habits is a phase and part of them exercising control and learning about their world. If you’re anxious around mealtimes, they will be too. Stay calm, make it fun, praise them when they try new flavours, and rest assured they’ll grow out of it. After all, you don’t see many adults existing on a diet of spaghetti hoops and cheese!”