Schools, usually a hotbed of icky germs, have been closed for months; your family has barricaded themselves at home washing their hands; and your household hygiene is firing on all cylinders. So the children, you presume, will be shielded from all the bacteria and viruses doing the rounds, both Covid-19 and otherwise.
There’s one more aspect to consider. Mirna Sabbagh, author and nutritionist at myPediaclinic, specialising in children’s nutrition, elaborates on how a healthy diet is a strong immune system’s building block. Research shows that 70 per cent of our immunity is influenced by gut health, which is in turn determined by what’s on our plates.
“Mineral, vitamin and protein deficiencies impact the body’s immunological response – their ability to produce antibodies and fight diseases. Moreover, a weak immune system can trigger inflammation and inflammatory disorders in the body.”
Poor nutrition, she explains, needs to be corrected early on in childhood to develop a resilient immune system. But the salvo of nutritional information flung at parents on social media can be baffling. Would probiotic drinks and vitamin supplements give your little one’s immunity a shot in the arm? And what about picky eaters who refuse nourishing dishes you’ve spent hours plating up creatively?
We asked Mirna to address some common dietary roadblocks parents encounter and debunk nutritional myths.
A food allergy or intolerance inadvertently means eliminating one or more nutritional components from your child’s diet. “Which means they’re at an increased risk of deficiencies,” explains Mirna. For example, if a toddler is allergic to dairy, they lose out on an excellent source of calcium. “In that case, find substitute foods rich in calcium such as almonds, sesame seeds, sardines and salmon,” Mirna advises. “Or go for calcium-fortified dairy sources such as fortified coconut milk, almond milk.” There are always alternative foods that can provide the same vitamins and minerals. But supplements are effective for kids who have a number of food intolerances, she clarifies.
Before you hot leg it down to the pharmacy, know that multivitamin pills are ineffective on an already healthy immune system. “Consuming more vitamin C than your child’s body’s requires won’t boost immunity,” explains Mirna. The only supplement kids with an overall healthy diet might need is Vitamin D, “as a large number of children are unable to convert vitamin D naturally from sunlight. Especially if they’re not having Vitamin D fortified milk.” Protein too is vital for immunity and deficiencies should be supplemented with protein enhancers and shakes. But no amount of supplements will fix an unhealthy diet, she cautions.
So what comprises an unhealthy diet besides junk food? “It’s a diet high in processed oils, refined grains and sugar, and low on fibre,” Mirna explains. “Low fibre can upset healthy microbiota – the good bacteria in the stomach, which plays a huge role with immunity and affects digestion and satiety (fullness).” Mirna recommends prebiotics – foods that contain fibre, which feeds gut microflora and helps them thrive. “Or alternatively, consume probiotics, which introduce the bacteria directly into your body through fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir etc.”
Most parents overestimate the amount of food their child should consume and underestimate their weight, Mirna says. “Sometimes children seem like picky eaters because they don’t have large appetites and the few bites they eat fulfils all nutritional needs. I recommend parents check their child’s BMI before concluding they’re underweight.” One way of working around fussiness is via other nutritional superfoods. “Add nuts and seeds and avocados into their food. Put them in a smoothie. But if they’re extremely picky, consult with an expert and root out underlying medical reasons such as gastrointestinal problem, psychological block, or a sensory processing disorder.”
Top 5 healthiest foods for kids
1. Fish – Rich in omega-3, which affects IQ, brain development and production of neurotransmitters essential for happiness, and prevents inflammation. Eat 2-3 times a week.
2. Fruits and vegetables – They’re rich in iodine, iron, antioxidants, and fibre, which helps maintain gut microflora essential to immunity.
3. Protein – Depending on the age, 30g of protein (chicken or meat) or 1 egg, along with two cups of milk a day is enough for a child. Protein promotes muscle development, regulates hunger cycles, and overall bone density and growth. Vegetarians should consume, lentils, legumes (chickpeas and fava beans), quinoa etc.
4. Healthy fats – Olive oils, nuts, seeds are very important as healthy fats can affect mood, brain development and the body’s androgen production.
5. Whole grains – Brown rice, quinoa, bulgur etc. are rich sources of iron, fibre, antioxidants as well as Vitamin E.