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Hilal Her

Importance of Childhood Nutrition

September 2023

Childhood is a time of rapid growth, development and physical activity. Optimal nutrition is vital in the early years, particularly in the first two years of life. During the early years, cognitive growth and development occurs rapidly, the brain forms and reaches nearly 80% of its adult weight within the first two years of life. Poor dietary habits during these early years will eventually affect children’s health later on in their life. Children who consume foods with high caloric value and zero nutritional value are at the increased risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease in their adulthood. Young children, whose brains are rapidly developing, need a nutrient-dense diet to help them as they process the world around them. Without the right nutrients, toddlers and preschoolers might struggle to develop the skills to maintain concentration, which becomes increasingly important as they get older. Making sure that children eat a balanced and nutritious combination of food is an essential part of their healthy development. Children are constantly growing, and they need the right nutrients to help them maintain a healthy weight, recover quickly from illness, build up strong bones and muscles, and keep up their energy levels.

Everyone wants their child to be healthy and feel good about themselves, both mentally and physically. Considering the importance of nutrition in your child’s development, especially during the first five years of growth, it will have an effect on their health, both now and in the future. Listed below are some of the effects that foods with good nutritional values have on our children. 
Efficient Immune System
To build an efficient immune system, your child’s diet needs to be nutrient-rich. A diet of processed foods, sugar and general lack of nutritional value can lead to suppression of the immune system and a weakened defense against infections. Specific nutrients that are required for the immune system to function properly, include vitamin A, folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E as well as zinc, essential fatty acid – linoleic acid – and essential amino acids.
Consuming fruits and vegetables will keep your child’s digestive and immune systems robust. A lack of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the diet can mean children and adolescents don’t get enough fiber. Low-fiber diets can cause constipation, and put children at greater risk of developing bowel cancers and heart disease later on in life. Healthy eating can help people with chronic diseases manage these conditions and avoid complications.
Physical Growth and Activity
Each nutrient is important for the growth and development of a toddler. The rate at which the nutrients are absorbed and utilized in a young child is very high. Inadequate care in planning their diet can impair their growth. Hence, it is important to provide them with the right quantity of the required nutrients in each meal. Nutrients like essential fatty acids, proteins, calcium-rich foods, and iron play a crucial role in aiding the optimum growth and development process in children.
Proper nutrition should be supported by a healthy, active lifestyle. Encourage children to be active and involve themselves in physical activities that they enjoy. Playing outside for an hour every day can help children maintain a healthy weight and general wellbeing. Try to limit your child’s screen time and encourage more physical forms of play.
Brain Development
Toddlerhood is a time of rapid brain development, when the brain develops the capacity to learn and builds cognitive skills. Due to brain development, the calorie intake for children, especially fats, is higher to meet their body’s nutritional demands. Everything from learning, to memory and attentiveness, is affected by the foods that we consume.  This requires specific nutrients like choline, folic acid, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A and some special fats like gangliosides, sphingolipids and docosahexaenoic acid. Poor intake of these nutrients can lead to deficiency in your toddler’s brain development. It is of paramount importance to monitor the mental development milestones of a child in order to assess the healthy growth of their brain. 
Bone Health
Children need a calcium-rich diet to support bone development and reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life. The best way to make sure children get their recommended calcium intake is to give them three servings of dairy food every day. Each serving could be a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt, or two slices of cheese. Making sure children get enough calcium will ensure that their bones reach their optimal strength.
It is important to establish good dental hygiene routines as early as possible, but good nutrition and eating habits can also help prevent gum problems like gingivitis. Dairy foods play an important role in maintaining good dental health as they provide children with calcium, phosphorus and the milk protein, casein.
Improvement of Behavior and Emotions
Nutrition has a direct effect on how children feel. Processed foods, including refined sugar, colorings, and other artificial additives can negatively affect a child’s mind, even making them feel hazy and less focused. Research shows that the brain networks associated with controlling feeding are linked closely to emotion. Serotonin (which helps regulate sleep, appetite and moods) is mostly produced in the gut, meaning the digestive system also guides emotions. Food can also be an important part of mental health. Nutrients such as folate, vitamin B6 and choline are necessary to synthesize certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters that regulate mood and memory. An imbalance of neurotransmitters is often associated with mood-related conditions like anxiety and depression.
How Parents Can Encourage Healthy Eating Habits in Children
Nowadays, young children are not getting the nutrition that they need to grow properly. Children’s first foods are also low in energy and nutrients. Their diets are frequently comprised of grains with little fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish or meat. Many are increasingly being fed sugary drinks and packaged snacks high in salt, sugar and fat. Poor diets in early childhood can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients. Enlisted below are some of the simple things that parents can do to help their families establish healthy eating habits.
•    Create a positive atmosphere by sitting down as a family at meal times and engaging in conversations that interest them.
•    Switch off the TV, mobiles and tablets and keep them away from the dining area. It can be distracting.
•    Talk about the food, where it is from, how it is prepared, maybe some interesting facts about it.
•    Serve smaller portions and encourage your child to serve themselves some more if required. This will make them feel less overwhelmed when they see a full plate and will reduce the wastage of food.
•    Enjoy meal times and avoid rushing through them. Even though it is frustrating when a child eats slowly, it will help them understand their bodies and realize when their tummies are full.
•    Excessive snacking between meals should be avoided. Keep snacks simple and portions small so as not to spoil the child’s appetite.
•    Provide a selection of healthy options and let your child decide for themselves what they want to eat.
•    Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal signals from your child that indicates they are feeling hungry or full.
•    Do not encourage or pressure your child to eat more than they want to.
•    Eat at scheduled times.
•    Serve healthy or new dishes alongside dishes that your child already enjoys.
•    Frequently try new and healthy foods together with your child and demonstrate that you enjoy eating these foods; as a parent, you are a role model.
What Should Children Eat?
Children need to eat a variety of foods from all food groups every day. This means plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits, wholegrain breads, cereals, rice and pasta, healthy sources of protein such as lean fish, eggs, nuts and poultry, and milk, yogurt and cheese as calcium in dairy products strengthen bones. Children also need to stay well hydrated, so try to offer water rather than soft drinks or fruit juices. Iron supports growth and development that is found in legumes, spinach, quinoa, etc.

A healthy nutritious diet is an essential component in the growing and developing years of children. It aids in building a strong foundation in the child with regards to staying healthy right from childhood. Hence, a child’s healthy development is not complete without proper nutrition. Once the importance of good nutrition is instilled in a child by parents, it remains with her/him in guiding him to live a positive, healthy and sustainable lifestyle. HH

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