Straining your eyes? You can listen to this automated AI version of the article here:Nutrients are the key to our health and particularly important for growing bones and high energy levels. Everyone requires different nutrients depending on age, growth, and activity. Nutrients can generally be broken down into two categories; macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and micronutrients – vitamin and minerals. Because both macro- and micronutrients have critical functions within the body, making sure you get the right balance of nutrients for optimal health and wellbeing. Children especially need the right nutrients in their diet to help them with the increased requirements from physical activity, growth spurts and learning.
Here are our top 6 nutrients that should keep your child healthy, during all stages of growth:
1. ProteinThe major building block of every cell in our body, protein is essential for life. There are proteins involved in helping your child’s body to break down food into energy, fight infections and carry oxygen around the blood. There are 20 monomeric, “base” amino acids, from which we synthesis the proteins that help grow and repair our bodies. 9 are considered “essential” because our bodies cannot create them. Animal protein is a considered a complete protein source because it contains all essential and conditionally essential aminos, plus it contains vitamins and minerals in highly bioavailable forms. Organ meats and shellfish are especially rich in essential nutrients.
While some plant foods contain all 9 essential amino acids, some are in too low amounts, e.g., methionine and cysteine. Many plant protein foods are highly processed with added oils and flavourings. Additionally, the bioavailability of plant proteins is lower than animal foods, so you could combine rice and beans to increase the amounts of the essential amino acids, but they will be half as bioavailable, and you would have to eat twice as many calories. Plant foods contain many defence chemicals that inhibit the digestion/absorption of nutrients. Tofu and tempeh are high in protein but should only be used occasionally or as a condiment, as they are in Asia. The few, truly vegetarian cultures around the world that raise their children without meat and fish experience far more health issues and stunted growth. Other proteins like carnitine, creatine, and carnosine, for example, are made in our body but not at the level we require, so it is important to get those from food, as well. These proteins are essential for healthy brain function, metabolism, muscle, and digestion, and more, and are not present in plant foods. Research has shown that animal foods are advised as the basis of a child’s diet, chiefly because they are rich in bioavailable nutrients that are lacking or low in plant foods. Cultures that eat foods like rice and beans usually add a meat to the dish, as well.
- Red meat
- Organ meats – liver, kidneys, heart, etc
- Whole milk and cheese
- Rice and beans (usually with an animal protein as well)
2. FatsFats and cholesterol are essential for life and are found in every cell membrane. They have a major role in supporting skin health, moisture, and repair, assist with immune responses, and are a fuel source, particularly during sleep. Cholesterol is the base molecule for our steroid hormones and vitamin D. While we can synthesise fats and cholesterol in our body, it is necessary to have fat within your diet for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, D, E, K and A, plus we only make around 80% of the cholesterol we need every day. Research has shown that children who eat a low-fat diet are more likely to be obese adults. The omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are not made in our body, so we must obtain them from our diet. Healthy animal fats, including red meat, but especially fish, contain the essential Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, that are critical for brain health, development, and growth. Vegetable oils are highly refined and the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is too high. Nuts and seeds contain the precursor to useable omega-3s, DHA and EPA, called alpha linolenic acid, but, unfortunately, the conversion to EPA, and especially DHA, is restricted in most of us. This is why it is important for children to consume animal fats.
- Animal fats – fatty meats, incl. fish
- Milk fats – Butter, ghee, full fat yoghurt, cheese
- Egg yolk
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- A few (preferably soaked and “activated”) nuts and seeds
3. CarbohydratesCarbohydrate, in the form of glucose, is considered the main source of energy for the body – glucose is essential for a well-functioning brain, and some cells in the body, e.g., red blood cells, can only use glucose for energy. The body is very good at making glucose, but it is better to get all the things your body needs in your diet, wherever possible. Children, however, do require carbohydrates in their diet, otherwise they may suffer from growth issues. Carbohydrates support mood hormones and help children to use fats and protein for building and tissue repair. Carbohydrates come in many forms including root vegetables (e.g., kumara, potatoes and carrots), and fruits and vegetables. Wholegrains are not essential in the diet (all essential nutrients can be obtained through animal-based diet, with fruit) but can be used if prepared properly through soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking. The most important thing to remember is to limit or omit highly processed foods and carbohydrates, except for traditional refined carbohydrate foods like white rice and traditional pastas.
4. CalciumCalcium is essential for building strong bones and healthy teeth. But did you know that calcium is also important for energy production, immune system regulation, and nerve and heart function? Again, the best sources for calcium are animal foods because plant foods contain compounds which can inhibit the absorption of calcium and other minerals. Bioavailability of calcium in seeds can be increased by traditional plant food preparation methods (soaking/”activating”) but these should not be relied upon for the bulk of a child’s calcium needs. Choose dairy that has been processed as little as possible.
- Unprocessed Milk
- Tinned salmon with bones
- Bone meal
- Activated sesame seeds
5. IronNecessary for healthy blood, iron aids normal cell function and carries oxygen into the cells all over the body, to support energy levels and reduce fatigue. Iron is essential for healthy brain function and mood. Iron comes in two forms: haem and non-haem iron. Haem-iron comes from animal foods, especially organ meats – liver is the richest source – and should be prioritised. Non-haem iron comes from plants and is poorly absorbed, although vitamin C can reverse this effect, somewhat.
- Organ meats
- Red meats
- Fish, pork, poultry
- Dark green leafy vegetables (poorly absorbed)
6. Vitamin CAn essential nutrient, Vitamin C cannot be stored within the body and must be consumed in the diet. Not only crucial for immune health; Vitamin C helps the body to heal wounds and reduces the development of bruises by strengthening the walls of blood vessels. Vitamin C helps keep gums and teeth healthy and supports the growth of strong bones.
- Citrus fruits
- Kiwifruit – especially gold
- Red peppers
Why is protein essential for children’s growth and development?Protein is essential for children’s growth and development as it plays a crucial role in building cells, the immune defences, carrying oxygen, and brain function, metabolism, muscle development, and digestion.
What are the sources of healthy fats for children?Healthy sources of fats for children include animal fats like fatty meats, fish, egg yolk, milk fats (butter, ghee, full-fat yogurt, cheese), avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, and a few soaked and activated nuts and seeds.