As parents, you know that good nutrition is important for your child’s health and development. But kids can be picky, crunched time leads to less than ideal nutrition choices, and repeated requests for junk food can wear you down. Even in an otherwise healthy diet, key nutrients are easily missed out on (for adults too!), and an overabundance of sugar is common.
Behavioral issues are often linked to diet, and a few small tweaks or additions can make a big difference in keeping kids happy, healthy and focused. Building positive nutrition habits in childhood is not only essential for growth and development, but for maintaining a healthy lifestyle into adulthood. Take a look at some of these common dietary oversights that could be impacting your child.
Balancing Macronutrients (carbs/fat/protein)
Diet trends commonly eliminate entire macronutrient groups, but we need all three, especially growing kids. Carbohydrates not only fuel muscles, but also the brain—adequate carbs, spread throughout the day, provide easily accessible energy and allow kids to focus and perform tasks with better precision. (1) Protein is crucial for growth and development—even for the immune system—as well as improving satiation and keeping tummies from rumbling. Heathy fats are critically important as well, allowing the brain to grow and develop properly, promoting satiation, and aiding in the absorption of vital vitamins and minerals. The bottom line is that the macronutrients work together to be properly absorbed by and utilized in our bodies, so it’s important to incorporate all three. Building meals with your child and allowing them to choose their preferred macronutrient ‘components’ will ensure they’re getting balanced nutrition they enjoy!
Important Micronutrients (vitamins & minerals)
Micronutrient deficiencies are surprisingly prevalent in both children and adults. The most common deficiencies are of iron, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin A and magnesium. Some symptoms of nutrient deficiencies are fatigue, brain fog and reduced immune function (frequent colds). More seriously, vitamin D and calcium deficiency advance to bone weakness, which if not corrected will lead to osteoporosis later in life. Low magnesium (one of the more common deficiencies in adults and children) is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and osteoporosis.
If you suspect a nutrient deficiency, talk to your child’s doctor who can run blood tests. It’s also a good idea to discuss vitamin D and b12 supplementation, as our soil makes these difficult to get enough of regardless of diet. That said, getting vitamins and minerals from whole foods is considered more effective than relying solely on supplements.
Regularly including green leafy vegetables, beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, nuts, seeds, eggs and seaweed (sounds non-kid-friendly, but snack-size baked seaweed sheets are becoming more and more popular in schools!) will help prevent common nutrient deficiencies.
Water and brain function are integrally linked. Dehydration can be a major cause of lack of concentration, memory problems, brain fog, headaches, trouble sleeping, and even anger and aggression. Water is absolutely essential for cellular function and the brain needs twice as much water as other cells. Likewise, we all know how dehydration compromises our digestive system. Even a 1% drop in hydration can have noticeable effects. (2)
Sugar sneaks its way into many products, so it’s likely your child is consuming more than you realize. The connection between sugar and hyperactivity may not be as we once thought (3, 4); however because of its negative health impacts, refined sugar in the diet should still be limited. Consuming refined sugar leads to inflammation and higher metabolic risk scores, which increase the likelihood of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. (5, 6)
Reducing sugar as low as possible from an early age will prime kids’ palates to enjoy healthy food. An all-out sugar ban may not be necessary (or helpful), but instead foster a relationship with sugar of destigmatized and conscious consumption. When including treats, allow your child to select the one thing they’d like most, and be mindful to avoid added sugars in other areas of your child’s diet. If you’d like to know more about hidden sugars, check out our article on how to avoid them.
Allergy and intolerance to gluten traditionally has been viewed as an all-or-nothing response, activated by a single gene. An alarming increase in “gluten intolerance” during the last decades has spawned a wave of research suggesting that gluten allergy symptoms actually manifest along a spectrum, not determined by a single gene but rather a product of genetic interaction (between other genes and environmental/dietary factors). In this model, individuals demonstrating gluten intolerance or celiac disease actually have a genetic advantage over those who are asymptomatic, as symptoms such as diarrhea are a protective mechanism to alert the body and rid it of harmful toxins. (7)
Gluten consumption has been demonstrated to cause inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining, even (or especially, due to long-term consumption) in asymptomatic individuals. The main problem with gluten and other proteins found in cereal grains (gliadin, zonulin) is their ability to bind to and cross the intestinal barrier. Intestinal permeability from zonulin was observed in celiac and non-celiac persons.
Increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut syndrome, allows harmful toxins and pathogens to cross into the bloodstream from the digestive tract, and has been associated with autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, along with diseases related to chronic inflammation such asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.(8) In the case of leaky gut syndrome, it’s important to note which foods aggravate digestive health (refined sugar, dairy, processed meats, etc.)
Even if your child does not show marked distress after consuming grain products, it is still wise to consider reducing foods containing gluten. The effects of grain proteins compound over time as intestinal permeability worsens—often symptoms do not manifest until adulthood.
Good nutrition can become great nutrition by being mindful of these few key aspects. Diet plays a crucial role in physical and mental health, and even if your child is not exhibiting behavioral issues or physical symptoms, balanced nutrition and fostering a healthy relationship with food are crucial early on. Healthy habits from a young age create healthy habits in adulthood, which will circumvent chronic disease later in life and allow your child to thrive!