Here’s what you need to know about early childhood nutrition
Dr Ang Poon Liat, Consultant Paediatrician at Thomson Paediatric Centre, tells us what every parent must know about early childhood nutrition. Read on to find out what nutrients your child needs, how to make sure he gets them, and how to cope with your child's fussiness about food.
Understanding your child’s nutritional needs in his early days can be a challenge. Then it is not always easy to understand how to get that necessary nutrition into your child’s system, especially when he is a fussy eater.
Here is information that can help guide you on nutrition for early childhood.
Nutritional requirements for early childhood
Childhood is a growth phase and healthy nutrition is critical for the rapid growth and development of the child’s body and brain. The nutritional requirements must be adequate not only in quantity but quality too. This is particularly relevant with regard to brain nutrients.
For growth and development, your child needs a broad-based nutrition which includes carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, probiotics, and fibres. Every parent knows this.
With a few exceptions, most children are able to eat an adequate amount of the above through various self-regulating mechanisms like hunger-satiety for calories, craving-nausea for specific nutrients, thirst for fluid, and etc. Parents must learn to discern their child’s body language in order to feed their child right. We call this child-led feeding.
Even more important is nutrient quality. Many parents are not clear about the functional aspect of nutrition.
For instance: carbohydrates for energy, protein for strength, fats for a smart brain, vegetables and fruits for vitality, probiotics for intestinal health, and so forth.
In addition, the specific roles of certain nutrients are not recognised. For instance: certain essential fatty acids like EPA and DHA are vital for nourishing a smart brain, certain essential amino acids like methionine are vital for defence, phytonutrients to prevent chronic degenerative diseases, and many other equally important health-giving nutrients.
Smart brain fats
I wish to highlight one particular group of vital nutrients’ link to nourishing a smart brain. The brain is the most important organ of the body because it is dedicated for the child’s survival.
Studies show that the critical period of the child’s brain development begins at conception till age 7. That’s when the key elements of a smart brain are set for learning. If you do not set the brain well, it is difficult to recover the child’s lost potential.
The key nutrients for developing a smart brain are smart brain fats. This is to be expected because 60% of the brain’s dry-weight is fat. This explains why children love fatty foods especially fried foods, chicken skin, the fat of meat, cream and ice cream. Unfortunately, these are body fats and not smart brain fats!
Smart brain fats include the essential fatty acids – DHA and EPA, phospholipids and natural cholesterol. They form the brain cell membrane, particularly of the myelin sheath, which is responsible for the speed of information transmission.
A smart brain has two critical functions – great speed of transmission and extensive connectivity. These two functions enable the brain to function as a supercomputer to be an internet. Speed is nutrient-dependent while connectivity is linked to nutrition and learning.
So how do you promote your child’s smart brain? Our grandparents knew the secret – that eggs, fish and cod liver oil are brain foods. They fed their children an egg (from free-range chickens) and a teaspoon of cod liver oil or fish oil for breakfast, and fish (wild) for dinner. And they fed them these till late childhood. Yes, we must continue this tradition to groom a smart generation.
Should you give your child vitamin and mineral supplements?
Vitamins and minerals come from vegetables, including herbs and spices, and from fresh fruits. If your child eats a balanced diet that includes a good range of vegetables and fruits, there is no necessity for vitamins and minerals supplementation.
Unfortunately, modern-day agriculture using fertilisers to cultivate similar crops over the long term produces vegetables and fruits that are substandard in vitamins and minerals content – as low as 50% of those in the yester-years.
We are no longer living in the ideal world where vegetables and fruits are organically cultivated, fish is wild, cattle is grass-fed, and eggs come from free-range chicken.
For these and many other reasons, supplementing your child with vitamins and minerals is a good idea. Many studies have shown that feeding children vitamin and mineral supplements improves school performance significantly.
Benefits of an organic diet
It is advisable to choose an organic diet for your child because it has two major advantages:
- First, organically grown foods carry more and better nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
- Second, organic foods are free from pesticides and herbicides. Many of these chemicals are not only toxic but estrogenic, i.e. they can influence the child’s sexual orientation. The girls carry a higher risk of breast cancer and the boys a higher risk of prostate cancer in adult life.
Dealing with fussy eaters
Nature gives us more than 5 tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, fatty and savoury) to seek a wider range of food flavours.
Since each taste represents specific nutrients, a wider range of taste leads to a wider spectrum of nutrients. Better nutrition means a healthier body and therefore better survival. For instance: sweet represents carbohydrates for energy, sour represents vitamins for vitality, bitter represents phytonutrients for anti-inflammation, salty represents minerals for bone strength, fatty represents fatty acids for a smart brain, and savoury represents proteins for muscular strength.
Therefore, eating food of a same taste repeatedly will evoke nausea (Nature’s design to prevent toxic overdose of the same nutrient) and the child will reject the food.
A typical example is porridge cooked with similar ingredients as a regular daily meal. Instead, the child craves for other flavoured food like milk (fatty), fruits (sour) and roots (sweet). Unfortunately, many parents do not recognise this nausea-craving feed-back loop. That’s because most parents do not practise “child-led” feeding. Instead, the child is branded a “fussy eater”.
Developing healthy eating habits in your child
Food is a powerful key that could turn the child to love or hate it. Mealtime is a critical social-emotional event that could turn a happy child into a fussy one. Adults are equally fussy eaters, otherwise there will only be one restaurant in Singapore.
Eating alone in a restaurant is an unpleasant experience. We’d rather order less and finish quickly. So eating must be enjoyable and fun. It must have the following ingredients:
- Right timing – when the child is hungry
- Right food – that the child likes
- Different-tasting dishes – each representing a distinct taste
- Happy ambience – that is fun
- Sharing – making it a social event
- Engage positively – with praise
- Relax – no pushing and no unkind words
- It must be child-led eating style.
A fussy eater is parent-made. Only a few children have super-sensitive taste buds that dislike strong tasting foods and rough textures. Strangely, many of the fussy children accept textural foods like biscuits and bread.
So cultivate good eating habits early – when weaning begins in later infancy. Expose the infant to a great variety of foods with different tastes, textures, and eating techniques. Remember, the first 18 months are the oral phase when the child is willing to try almost anything orally. Don’t miss this opportunity.
This article has been written by Dr Ang Poon Liat, Consultant Paediatrician – Special interest in Autism & Nutritional Medicine at Thomson Paediatric Centre.
He can be reached at:
339 Thomson Road, #03-06
Thomson Medical Centre
For further information, you can refer to the two books authored by him: The Wonders of Nutrition and Roadmaps to Recovery.
Click here to purchase them.