The importance of nutrition for growth and immunity
If there’s one thing most parents wish for their children, it is that they grow and develop to their greatest potential. That means access to good quality food and nutrients, water, plenty of activity and sleep but it also goes beyond just an increase in height and weight. Healthy development also includes social, emotional and educational development. An environment that is safe and loving, where the child is able to play and read, explore and spend time with friends and family.
The easiest way to determine whether a child is meeting basic growth milestones is by tracking their height and weight, and often head circumference, on a growth chart, which can be done with a GP or Paediatrician and monitoring this over time. Other developmental milestones are classified as the things most children can do by a certain age and include how your child plays, speaks, acts and moves. There are great online resources that can help with identifying what to look out for and these can also be discussed with your doctor if you have any concerns.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Australian children generally do not eat the recommended serves of vegetables, legumes, fruits, protein and dairy foods and have a higher intake of discretionary foods (like lollies, soft drinks, biscuits etc). The key nutrients required for growth and development and where to find them include:
- Energy – Kids need plenty of energy for growth and to fuel their activity but many kids are receiving over-nutrition from foods with poor nutritional quality. Wholegrain cereals products, starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes and fresh dairy products are great sources of energy and total intake is based on the child’s age and activity level.
- Protein – Protein is the building block of our body and we need it to grow and repair. Some of the best sources are lean meat, chicken, eggs, tofu, nuts and seed, legumes and dairy foods.
- Fat – Fats are not created equally and the unsaturated fat we get from plant and fish are essential for good health. One of their key jobs is helping to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Some of the best sources are fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna), avocado, nuts and seeds, and olives and olive oil.
- Iron – Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in young children. Iron is essential for brain development and function and carries oxygen around the blood. Some of the best sources are red meat, poultry, fish and iron-fortified cereal.
- Zinc – Zinc is essential for growth and development, immune function and cell growth and repair and plays a role in many different metabolic processes. It is found in many different types of foods but particularly in meat, seafood and poultry.
- Calcium – Calcium is the building block of our bones and teeth, and it’s incredibly important for children’s growth. Kids need 3 serves per day and some of the best sources are from dairy foods (milk, cheese and yoghurt) and calcium-fortified plant alternatives (e.g. soy), as well as tofu.
One of the key reasons for children meeting nutritional requirements is to support a healthy immune system. The immune system is classified as the organs, tissue and cells that protect us from invading pathogens (bad bugs!) and help to keep us healthy and resistant to prior infections. Adequate nutrition also helps to feed and support the gut microbiota, which in turn helps to support our immune system as well. The gut microbiota is made up of trillions of cells which mainly populate the large bowel. A healthy microbiota is one that has a high number of many different strains of bacteria and recent research is showing that our microbiota may influence and effect just about every system of the body.
The way our diet influences our gut microbiota is that it provides us with certain nutrients which feed on or respond to certain strains of bacteria – so shifts in our diet will shift the composition of our microbiota. Generally, a diet rich in plant foods from wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds contain a variety of different types of nutrients, fibre (prebiotic fibres) and antioxidants as well as fermented food like yoghurt which contains prebiotics that help to build the diversity and numbers of these healthy bacteria in the bowel. A healthy microbiota acts like a barrier to pathogens that enter our body via the gut and also help to clear these pathogens from the gut. The microbiota also interact with our immune system outside the gut by recruiting immune cells to fight any invaders.
In summary, the role of nutrition has far-reaching effects on the body as a whole, particularly during crucial growth and developmental years. The nutrients we get from our diet help to support a healthy gut microbiota and provide nutrients which are essential for a strong immune system. Compromise in nutrition due to picky eating or access to healthy foods can compromise gut health and immunity and in these cases, a supplement can be a great support to fill in any nutritional gaps. If you have any concerns about your child’s picky eating, check with your healthcare professional.
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