Analyses of children’s diets compared to nutritional recommendations reveal that we have work to do. With growing research highlighting how a child’s early eating habits affect their health for years down the road, here’s what you need to know.
The ABCs of good childhood nutrition
Put simply, don’t overthink it.
Registered dietitian Trista Best says it’s common for parents and caregivers to feel overwhelmed when it comes to their child’s diet. “Parents are inundated with information and opinions regarding <when>, <how>, and <what> they should feed their kids,” explains Best. “But we tend to overcomplicate their needs.”
If you want to motivate children to eat healthily, Best’s best tips are all about returning to the basics.
Fruits and vegetables
Children need four to six servings of produce daily. Teens need seven to eight servings. “Offer a fruit and/or vegetable at every meal,” suggests Best, “and introduce a new one every week. Don’t stress about them eating it. Simply place it on their plate and allow them to discover it for themselves.”
At least half of your child’s grain intake should be from whole grains. “Replace your child’s common refined carbohydrates with whole grains,” says Best. “Try to ensure they’re eating at least one form of whole grain a day.”
“Plant proteins, eggs, and dairy can provide an adequate amount of protein for your child,” says Best. “Getting protein at every meal can look as simple as adding a serving of legumes, nut butter, eggs, or yogurt.”
Despite such straightforward recommendations, how are our children stacking up?
Avoid food anxiety
“Try not to make food and mealtimes too stressful,” advises Best. “The more we build anxiety around food, the more likely our children will [be to] develop disordered eating habits.”
Today’s school lunch, next year’s pediatrician appointment?
“The first five years of a child’s life is a period of rapid growth, when proper nutrition is essential for development,” says board-certified nutritionist Tara Bassi. “This period is also a crucial time when children develop eating behaviors that lay the foundation for their future diet and health.”
As kids get older, a proper diet continues to be critical for their evolving bodies, changing hormones, and mental health.
For example, kids develop 15 percent of their adult height, 40 percent of their adult weight, and significant cognitive growth as they enter their teen years. Poor eating habits have been linked to delayed development across the board.
Since the early 2000s, our kids’ diets haven’t changed for the better. Today, three-quarters of kids and teens still don’t meet many of the basic recommendations. Even worse, among those ages four to 18, nearly one-quarter of their daily calories come from high-fat, high-sugar processed foods.
Poor diet can have long-term effects
Unless corrected, your child will be paying for their early food habits for years to come.
“A diet high in fat and sugar can be detrimental to a child’s gut microbiome by depleting the number of good bacteria in the gut,” warns Bassi, “which then allows bad bacteria to take over.” This can lead to consequences later in life.
A weaker immune system at a young age
“Seventy percent of your child’s immune system is housed in their gut,” says Bassi. “A low-functioning gut [can] make children more susceptible to colds, flus, ear infections, etc.”
A weaker immune system as an adult
Kids with poor gut health compromise their systemic immunity and grow up to be more prone to infectious diseases as adults.
An increased risk of mental health concerns
Studies show that kids who eat healthily are more likely to have improved mental well-being compared to kids who don’t eat a well-balanced diet. Thanks to the gut-brain axis, a traditional sugar- and fat-rich Western diet is also linked with higher risks of depression, anxiety, and stress in kids.
Then there’s the risk of childhood obesity, which has tripled in the last few decades.
“Childhood obesity has lasting effects on long-term health if not controlled and corrected,” warns Best. “Your child’s body is placed under excess stress for long periods of time, and the impact of this is still being discovered. [A poor childhood diet] can also cause chronic inflammation. This can contribute to chronic health conditions that are common in the West, like obesity, cancer, and heart disease.”
Cooking up a healing remedy
“Dietary approaches can aid in improving and preventing inflammation and gut concerns in children,” says Best.
Add antioxidant-rich foods to their meals
“Antioxidants help reduce inflammation by preventing and reducing free-radical damage,” she explains. Besides soothing inflammation, antioxidants are also good for your child’s gut.
Increase fiber intake
“Adding fiber to their diet can also lower inflammation by keeping the good gut bacteria fed and in balance,” says Best.
Once again, keep it simple
“These may sound like difficult rules to follow,” says Best, “but all of them can be achieved by replacing your child’s afternoon snack with a piece of raw fruit like an apple or a banana; adding carrots and hummus to their lunch plate in place of chips; or opting for juice with natural sweetener rather than refined sugar.”[END]
The big picture
The traditional Western diet is wreaking havoc on kids’ guts. Here are just a few examples.
Increased risk of disease
Scientists hypothesize that the reduced gut bacteria diversity observed in kids who eat a Western diet may be why we’re seeing a rise in childhood inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune disorders, and allergies.
Higher rates of ADHD
Children who eat a typical Western diet, including those who didn’t grow up with it but were introduced to it, are more likely to develop attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder compared to kids who ate a Mediterranean diet.
Many processed Western foods are already compromised nutritionally. But gut bacteria also produce important nutrients such as vitamin K, further outlining the importance of a healthy gut.
Gut-healing, kid-approved supplements
Talk to your health care practitioner about how these supplements may help heal your child’s gut.
“The biggest way parents can help is to add a probiotic to their child’s daily regimen,” says Trista Best, RD. “They replenish the gut’s good bacteria.”
Important for children’s growth and development, omega-3s also play a role in immune health. You can find many kid-focused omega-3 oil supplements that come in child-friendly flavors.
Estimates suggest that kids get only half the recommended amount of fiber in their diets. From gummies to crackers, there are easy ways to sneak more fiber into your kid’s meals.
Peppermint has been used in traditional medicine to help soothe digestive issues, and peppermint may even be a remedy for irritable bowel syndrome. Plus, tea’s antioxidants benefit the gut bacteria.