Catching them young

2011-10-20 00:00

LAST week we celebrated National Nutrition Week with the topic “Feeding smart from the start”. Good nutrition­ from the pre-pregnancy stage until two years of age has remarkable benefits into the future and can dramatically reduce diseases in adulthood.

Research shows that the first two years of life are a critical window of opportunity. Poor nutrition during this period causes stunting, increased risk for disease, poor cognitive development and delayed motor development. Good nutrition has been associated with improved schooling outcomes and better long- term health such as reduced diabetes­, obesity and high blood pressure risk.

South Africa has marked extremes in that we have a high percentage of stunted and underweight, malnourished children, but also a large percentage of obese and overweight children. The National Food Consumption Survey conducted in 2005 showed that more than one out of five children is stunted, and one out of 10 children is underweight. This same survey also showed that at least half of our children are affected by vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, and one out of five children is iron deficient. These deficiencies play a large role in the intellectual development and physical health of the child.

On the flip side of the coin, we also know that one out of five children is obese or overweight. This predisposes them to developing diabetes, hypertension and obesity as adults.

The great news is that armed with the right information, we can all make simple changes in our homes that will improve our children’s lives.

It all starts with breakfast

It is essential to build a good habit of eating breakfast every day. Simple solutions are toast with a protein-rich topping such as peanut butter or egg, or cereals and porridges. Smoothies may be the answer for a child who doesn’t have a good appetite early in the morning.

Most breakfast cereals are fortified with additional iron and other vitamins. They are also eaten with milk which is an excellent source of calcium and protein.

When choosing a cereal, avoid the highly sweetened and flavoured versions. Rather add fresh or dried fruit and yogurt to a plainer cereal for extra flavour and sweetness. Adding raisins, or grated apple or dates to a cooked porridge is a tasty way of increasing fruit intake and safely adding some sweetness. Focus on good fats

Children under the age of six need more fat than we do as adults. Young children have limited stomach capacity­ and therefore energy-dense fats are vital to provide enough fuel in the limited space available. Use full-cream milk until the age of six, after which low-fat milk is ideal. If your child is not growing well or has lost a lot of weight due to a recent illness then giving him or her extra servings of beneficial fats is necessary. Avocado pear, nuts, peanut butter, full-cream yogurts and milk are all healthy choices. If your child is overweight, these foods can still be included, but only in moderate amounts. Don’t make vegetables the enemy

Often children are encouraged to eat their vegetables through bribery. I certainly remember hearing “eat your vegetables if you want any pudding” frequently during my childhood. This immediately causes the child to assume that vegetables aren’t enjoyable. Take your children grocery shopping and let them choose different vegetables to try. Involve them in the preparation and offer interesting options, such as gem squash filled with mixed vegetables and sprinkled with a little cheese.

Preschool-aged children often prefer crunchy textures and more bland foods. They have very sensitive taste buds and are likely to reject strongly flavoured vegetables.

Have fun putting together a plate of raw vegetables that can be dipped into cottage cheese. Cucumbers, carrots, baby tomatoes and baby corn will make a good start. Add some popcorn for extra crunch.

Extra vegetables can be hidden in stews, mince dishes and casseroles to set your mind at ease and ensure that your child is eating a fair portion of vegetables.

However, as clever as you may become in disguising the vegetables, always offer visible vegetables­ at every lunch and supper. This creates awareness and sets the tone for what is “normal” as part of a healthy meal. Don’t become so sneaky that your child doesn’t know he or she is eating vegetables at all. This will not help in training him or her for the future. Ditch the junk

Junk foods are never beneficial to your child, no matter what side of the spectrum they fall in terms of weight. Using these foods to “tempt” a child to eat offers no benefit, and allowing overweight children free access to the treats cupboard is also short-sighted.

Rather keep treats for one special day each week, and for the rest of the week keep the focus on fruits, popcorn, yogurt, crackers and cheese wedges.

By actively making better nutritional choices, we can influence the health of our children, so take hold of that responsibility today and make the necessary changes.


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