Children are like flowers and the garden of the home where parents, the gardeners, strive to nurture with the most nutritious foods in order for them to blossom to their potentials. Making sure that your child receives a balanced meal is something that most parents desire, but it is often a battle with the child turning his or her nose up at the plate of food.
However, with the amazing number of food choices available, some enriched and fortified with vitamins and nutrients, serving up a balanced meal would only require parents to be aware of the needed nutrients for physical and mental development along with the cultivation of good eating habits. A chat with a dietitian revealed some important keys to balanced nutrition.
According to Celeste Lau, manager at the Dietetics and Nutrition Services at Sunway Medical Centre, “To achieve a balanced diet, you’ll need to cover all the necessary food groups for their meals,” she said.
Calcium and protein
Healthy and strong bones come from calcium which can easily be found in milk and dairy products as well as soy milk and soy based foods such as tofu, tempeh, ‘tauhu pok’, and soy bean sheets (‘fu chuk’). “Leafy vegetables and broccoli also contain a lot of calcium along with bony fish like sardine and anchovies,” she explained.
“Growing kids will need calcium for building strong bones, especially during the first two decades of their lives. The more they have it stored when they’re young, the lesser the loss when they get older,” Lau said. This is due to the fact that 90% of our bone mass is developed before adulthood. Thus, it is important that children receive a storehouse of growing up nutrients like calcium.
Lau also observed that there are now many vegetarian parents expecting their kids to follow their footsteps. Protein is important for growing up and parents can get this from plant or animal protein sources. “Milk is quite a wholesome food as it covers a range of nutrients that kids need,” she said.
Some children have a lack of appetite and this could be traced to a lack of zinc. The zinc requirement for 7-9 years old children is very low with only 5.6 and 5.7 mg required per day for boys and girls respectively, according to the recommended nutritional intake (RNI) by the Malaysian Ministry of Health. Without sufficient zinc, the growth and development of kids may be impaired due to poor appetite. Zinc is also needed for the development of the brain. “We don’t need a megadose of zinc and it’s great to get it from food sources like nuts and seafood,” she said.
Vitamin D is much needed for our immunity and bone health. Kids who seldom see the sunlight, safely tucked away from the heat are even more at risk. “Vitamin D’s RNI has also been revised to a higher number in Malaysia in 2017, due to a worldwide issue of vitamin D deficiency,” Lau said. Yes, vitamin D deficiency is also an issue in sunshine rich Malaysia.
The serious concerns worldwide about vitamin D deficiency is more understood when we learn that vitamin D is calcium’s best friend as it supports its absorption. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, vitamin D also takes care of cell growth, nerves and muscles and is in charge of reducing inflammation and important for the immune system. Children who miss out on sufficient vitamin D in their bodies might experience lower growth and suboptimal immunity function.
Kids’ eyes should score an ‘A’
For good eyesight and even more so in this day and age where kids are staring into smartphone or laptop screens at an earlier age, vitamin A is needed for children’s healthy development of their vision and skin. You can get vitamin A from carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy vegetables, capsicum, tropical fruits and fish.
Probiotics and prebiotics
The research on the link between gut health and immunity has been on the increase ever since scientists had begun their exploration of mapping the genes of bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract. One significant finding is that 70 to 80% of our immunity is linked to our guts. The gut also functions as our second brain influencing our mood and wellbeing. Thus, creating a conducive environment for good bacteria to flourish, especially in children’s guts is important so that they will have a healthier foundation of overall health and wellbeing right from the start.
Probiotics, or good bacteria are essential in creating that conducive intestinal environment for good gut health, which is important for digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Of course, kids can find their probiotics in certain cultured milk foods and drinks. Parents will also find tempeh, miso, natto, kimchi and other fermented foods as good sources of probiotics. Lau added that it is easier to quantify if kids take probiotic foods which have indications of how many CFU’s of bacteria are in it (check the labels). CFU stands for ‘colony forming unit’, meaning the number of bacteria which is capable of being multiplied in the tract.
However, for these good bacteria to thrive, they need prebiotics or simply, food for good bacteria. Prebiotics help to promote the growth of good bacteria and maintain a good intestinal environment. They are usually a form of soluble fibre but they need to be acquired through our diet. “Insufficient fibre is a problem for our digestion too,” Lau said. We can get more prebiotics by eating fibrous foods such as “sengkuang”, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw garlic and onions, asparagus and so on.
As Lau reiterated, parents can provide a balanced diet for growing kids through ensuring their diet covers most of the major food groups and being aware of the nutrients and vitamins essential for development.