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Growing up strong

Healthy children are full of energy and vitality and a balanced diet is key to maintaining this. Here’s how to keep them in tip-top health

What children need

“Children’s diets should have a great selection of all foods, especially fruits, vegetables and foods rich in protein, calcium and fibre,” says Helena Murphy of health store Loop de Loop in Casteltownbere, Co Cork. “Think plenty of different foods in their original state with wonderful colours. Children should eat as little processed food as possible.”

“Make sure they are eating a wide variety of foods,” says Olive Curran, nutritional therapist at Irish supplement company PPC. “Vegetables, fruit, wholegrain foods such as cereals, pasta; dairy – milk, yoghurt, and cheese; and protein – meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes (beans, lentils). Avoid empty calories like sugary snacks or drinks between mealtimes. Instead offer them nutritious snacks like vegetable sticks to munch on.”

“I often find parents do not manage to include protein with each meal,” says Lorna Driver-Davies, nutritional therapist and education manager at Wild Nutrition. “Protein is really key for growing children for their bones and teeth, and to help their brain function properly. Protein foods also help to create a feeling of fullness that is much better for blood sugar. Give children healthy fats in each meal: olive oil, avocado, seeds, nuts and oily fish. If children do not like oily fish, they should be given a fish oil. I would advise vegan children to see a nutritionist/nutritional therapist as it’s vital specific nutrients are kept in balance for growth and development.”

Making food fun

Fussy eaters can be worrying for parents but making the process of shopping, cooking and eating more fun and inclusive can help. “Encourage them to get involved,” says Olive Curran. “Include them in the process and let them help you. They will have fun and be more likely to eat the food! They’ll also learn about food and nutrition which are important. If children will not eat vegetables, create recipes that vegetables can be blended into. What children can’t see, they can’t pick out.

“Children who are fussy eaters still need nutrients,” says Helena Murphy. “Making eating fun can help like putting food into shapes or getting them to use their imagination with food. Also making soups and smoothies to disguise certain foods they don’t like will help.”

Lorna Driver-Davies has some ideas for getting fruit and vegetables into children. “Make natural gelatin gummies with vegetable purees; home-made smoothies (where you can control the fruit to vegetable ratio); disguising foods into burger and sausage shapes; children tend to love vegetable crudités and dips to go with them; make vegetable or bean muffins or similar e.g. beetroot brownies.”

Essential vitamins and minerals

“As we don’t get a lot of sunshine children often need extra Vitamin D,” says Helena Murphy. “Often children and adults are lacking in this important vitamin.”

“Studies show that many children have inadequate intakes of many vital nutrients including Vitamins D (due to sunlight), C (remember not just found in fruit, but veg too), B1, B2 and zinc,” says Lorna Driver-Davies. “Clinically I find children are low in magnesium from symptoms they exhibit, which usually go away with supplementation: anxiety, difficulty sleeping or winding down for bed, poor concentration, muscle aches and tiredness. Magnesium has more than three hundred requirements in the body so it’s a pretty significant mineral, and most adults are low.”

“Omega-3 fatty acids are the most critical building blocks of the brain,” says Olive Curran. “Without these important fats, it can become difficult for children to concentrate, learn new information, and balance their moods properly. Since most children do not eat oily fish on a regular basis, omega-3s are in short supply during the most critical stages of brain development. Vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’ plays an important role in building strong bones and teeth. Iron is required for oxygen transport in the body, energy production, cell and tissue growth, and the synthesis of brain chemicals for mood balance. Its deficiency in early childhood can contribute to growth impairment, compromised immunity, learning and behavioural problems. Calcium is required for strong teeth and bones. Sometimes sleep problems can be caused by a child being low in magnesium.”

When to supplement

“Children who appear pale or have lines under their eyes could be low in iron, so do get this checked with a doctor,” says Lorna Driver-Davies. “Low iron status can affect growth, cognition, metabolism, energy and the immune system. I would highly recommend a children’s multivitamin.”

“If your children are not eating oil-rich fish at least once a week, try giving them a high quality fish oil supplement with omega-3, omega-9, vitamins D and E to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition for their growth and development,” says Olive Curran. “Also a good children’s multivitamin to safeguard against any vitamin or mineral deficiencies. If the child has a poor immune system or digestive issues, a children’s probiotic is useful.”

“There are great liquid tonics and multivitamins for children,” says Helena Murphy. “These help keep their immune system up, especially in school where their immune system is really put to the test.”

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