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Children and Nutrition – worry less and play more

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The world of nutrition has become unnecessarily complex. There are so many voices competing for our attention. There are hundreds of blogs, books, products, programs, 'reality' TV shows all touting to be the experts on nutrition. 

So how can we navigate the endless information and claims to find what works or at least won't cause harm?

For parents and carers of children it can be even more daunting and there's that niggling thought that making the wrong choice will immediately condemn your child to a life of poor health and an early grave. That's a lot of pressure and a lot of anxiety to deal with. Add to this the pressure from social media and comparisons against all those 'perfect' parents, celebrities and others who have "mastered it", so much so that now feeding your child has become more competitive than scoring a spot on the Olympic Team. Firstly there's is no single 'right way' to feed your child. But there are things though that will help make it easier for you while most importantly that allow your child to develop a healthy relationship with food and their body and provide them the confidence to take on that responsibility for themselves at appropriates ages and stages.

I also want to point out that while I have no children of my own, I have looked after many children over the years and I have observed many parents at various stages of parenting and their struggles and their triumphs. I am a trained nutrition professional and I can promise you that children do survive and thrive in any supportive, loving environment, regardless of what they eat.

So if there is no single 'right way' to eat, then what? That's perhaps the best question we can ask ourselves. Keep in mind that children are growing and developing continuously, every aspect of them. They are also not "mini adults", they have very different nutritional needs to adults. Children will require enough variety of and quantity of food to meet their needs. If you have a fussy eater this can be worrying for you, but be assured they can still do well. For parents of fussy eaters there are some brilliant tips, especially anything by Ellen Satter to help you out and reduce your anxiety. Another thing to be mindful of is changing appetities. Parents are often surprised that their growing children, especially boys, can at times eat more than them! This may be quite normal during preparation for and during growth spurts. Consider also that a child's brain uses a lot of energy because they are constantly learning about the world around them.

In summary this means children will need foods that provide a lot of readily accessible energy for the body and the brain. They also need food that provides support for ongoing growth and development. And they need to be able to eat in a flexible way that provides for times of increased hunger to accommodate growth spurts.

To answer the "then what" part just remember there are many foods that can provide the nutrition a child needs just by offering as much variety of foods within your means and skills.

Foods for energy – predominantly carbohydrate foods. Carbohydrate has had some bad press that is unhelpful, likely confusing and often inaccurate. Complex carbohydrate foods include fruit (fresh, canned or dried), grains (such as rice, wheat, oats, corn, barley, rye) pseudo grains (such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa), legumes (such as beans, chickpeas, lentils) other foods such as diary, vegetables will also contain varying amounts of carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates offer nutrient, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Including complex carbohydrate in your child's meals can help with energy, moods, reduces constipation and provides a feeling of fullness and satisfaction. Processed foods like lollies, chips and take-away foods are what would be considered simple carbohydrates. While these simple carbohydrates offer little nutritional value, they do provide other non-nutritional benefits such as emotional (pleasure and comfort) and social (family celebrations, children's birthday parties).

Foods for growth and development – are those that provide protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in reasonable amounts. This can be achieved by ensuring your child is able to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible. Children may also do better eating smaller meals more often, may have a bigger or smaller appetite at different times and may change their likes and dislikes depending on age and stage. Unnecessarily restricting foods or food groups is not advisable without the guidance of your nutrition professional or your doctor.

A word about Superfoods, Toxic Foods and the "Nutrition Expert" 

You might read, see or hear a lot about the latest superfoods as well as foods deemed to be toxic. It's the kind of information that many people are very excited about sharing widely and often either out of fear or hope. I urge you to be cautious of the nutrition information provided via meme's, blogs, books, instagram posts etc. These are rarely well researched or the evidence is inconclusive at best. Producers & sellers of superfoods also spend money, a lot of money on marketing to convince you to buy their products often at high prices and the claims they make are just as rich. Be mindful that for every supposed superfood, there are actually other options that are just as 'super' but are also more accessible and cheaper that offer similar nutritional value, eg. spinach and broccoli are similar to kale.

Then we have the supposed toxic foods. These are mostly individual nutrients such as sugar (glucose and or fructose), gluten, starch etc. that have been accused of causing poor health and even death. This is mostly inaccurate with over zealous marketing that omits information needed to provide context. Simply put, ANY food can be toxic. Water can be toxic, oxygen can be toxic. We need water and we definitely need oxygen, and we also need food but at the right dose they can become toxic to us. The dose rather than the nutrient is what takes something from being safe to unsafe. Even foods labeled 'healthy' can cause problems in sufficient doses. Just because some is good does not mean that more is necessarily better! This is an issue if people use supplements believing they are compensating for the supposed poor nutrition in our food. Vitamin A, Iron, Vitamin C, Calcium, Copper etc. can all cause disruption in the body if they are consumed in higher than required doses. In most cases choosing food sources that contain these nutrients are preferrable as they are better adsorbed and come with less risks and also with other nutrients that we also need.

Choosing a nutrition expert to listen to can be difficult with so many competing messages. You do want to choose to listen to someone who has actually formally studied nutrition for a number of years. You do want them to have formal qualifications in nutrition from a university not the internet. A clue of the voices to be wary of are those that suggest that trained nutrition professionals are harmful; claim formal education is stifling, restrictive, unnecessary or just plain wrong; make claims that universities are just all puppets of big food and big pharma and support the sickness industry, so therefore your only choice is to follow them. It appears that health has now become a popularity contest where we choose to follow people based on how popular they are rather than actual science and that is scary. It's true that the science of nutrition changes. It's true that advice has been modified. It's true some experts have different ideas and it's true that nutrition will continue to be like this. What this really demonstrates is that the science is working because we keep learning, because we are modifying and changing advice. Because people disagree it means that we continue to research which is wonderful because we learn more. But the basics are still the same, we just get better at understanding and explaining the details. And nutrition doesn't so much change as we increase our understanding of it. Fats being a good example we know there are now different kinds of fats, we know they have different functions and we know some are better than others for us. we know that generally too much fat in the diets is often at the expense of other foods which leads to poorer health outcomes over time.

So be wary of anyone who recommends ignoring medical advice, especially if they advise stopping medications or treatments. By all means be curious and consider the various ideas, but please find an expert to help you understand and evaluate that information, especially those of a restrictive nature. Again keep in mind that children have different nutritional needs and any deviation to general nutritional recommendations should be done under guidance from a trained professional to prevent impaired growth, malnutrition and issues such as disordered eating and other behavioural or psychological disorders.

Is there really any issue with alternative diets?

So while the idea is to provide as much variety as possible for children and they may or may not eat what we'd like, they can still do ok. However to minimise the potential for issues we want to have access to as much variety rather than limit the variety. With many altenative diets they often have a restrictive component. Some more than others. Nutritionally inadequate diets and the consequences may not show up immediately, for example low intakes of calcium and vitamin D were shown in a 2012 study to be associated with higher risk of fracture in teenage girls. Other studies support there is a higher risk of osteoporosis in teenage girls with inadequate calcium intakes. But there is no evidence that the source of calcium must be dairy. Many popular diets when carefully planned such as vegetarian can be healthy and nutritionally adequate. The popular Paleo diet may meet most children's nutritional needs, however achieving sufficient Calcium, Vitamin D and carbohydrate is unlikely and would need modification and advice from a nutrition professional. The more food groups that are restricted the more likely the nutritional adequacy of the diet will decrease and this increases the need to work with a professional.

Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. HAES Health has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Please consult a dietitian for specific nutrition advice and your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. 

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