For years, health experts have observed that undernourished children are more likely to experience behavior problems, struggle in school and have difficulty keeping up in the workplace as adults. While these challenges are multifaceted, feeding your child a balanced diet may help.
But, what does optimal nutrition for kids look like? Here are some best practices to consider when crafting a nutritious diet for your child, so they stand to benefit from all the cognitive and energy benefits that come with eating right.
Childhood is a period of many firsts, yes, but it's also prime time for tremendous brain growth. So much so, that without the right brain foods on their plate, your child may fall behind in their development.
"We know that early on, in the first two to three years of life, brain growth is fast and furious, making nutrition critical for cognitive development," explains Jennifer Williams, MPH, a research scientist with Abbott.
In fact, research shows that 2-year-olds with stunted growth may have learning difficulties that can linger into their teen years.
The Food-Mood Connection
Food can also be an important part of mental health. Nutrients such as folate, vitamin B6 and choline are necessary to synthesize certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that regulate mood and memory. An imbalance of neurotransmitters is often associated with mood-related conditions like anxiety and depression.
That's not the only way food can impact your child's emotional health: A diet lacking essential nutrients can also alter the way the body burns fat, carbohydrates and calories, which can lead to them becoming overweight or obese. Staying at an unnatural weight can increase a child's odds of developing chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, later in life; it also takes an emotional toll, as children who are overweight are more likely to experience bullying and depression.
Nutrition for Kids’ Peak Performance
When kids don't get the nutrients that they need for growth, they may start to slow down, in both learning and on the playground.
The good news is proper nutrition for kids may reverse that trend: According to one study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, when children at risk for undernutrition received nutrition counseling and consumed an oral nutritional supplement such as PediaSure twice daily, they experienced improvements in physical activity and appetite levels and had fewer sick days after just two months, according to their parents.
Making Healthy Habits Happen
If you're concerned that your child hasn't been getting the nutrition that they need for growth and brain development, research shows that it's possible to catch up. "When a child will only eat certain foods or is refusing meals, there can be a lot of stress that affects the whole family dynamic in negative ways," says Williams. Be sure to talk to a pediatrician about any eating or growth concerns you have.
With the following tips, the solution to poor eating habits could be as close as small efforts made across the kitchen table:
You can also help your child appreciate and, ideally, even enjoy the nutrients on their plate by setting a healthy example. Reinforce that these foods are optimal for their well-being, both now and well into the future, too. Over time, if you eat a well-rounded diet, chances are your child will want to do the same.
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Understanding Your Child's Growth Spurt
During childhood years (ages 6 to 12), your child undergoes steady growth and development with periods of more rapid growth known as “growth spurts.” If they're often hungry in between meals or their pants are suddenly too short, they may be experiencing a growth spurt.