Malnutrition is one of the top 5 causes of disease and illness amongst kids around the world – and only those living in areas where food is scarce.
When people think about malnutrition they most often imagine a starving child. And yes, while starvation is still a serious problem in many parts of the world, the problem of malnutrition does not stop there.
Even children who do get enough food have the risk of malnutrition. This is because the food they consume is of poor quality and contains hardly any nutrition for their growing body and developing brain. We call these empty calories – the stomach thinks it’s full and hunger goes away, but the rest of the body continues to search for the nutrients missing from modern processed food.
Without these nutrients, the body has to find them in other areas of the body, which can break down and stop the growth of some organs. Malnutrition mostly affects the following areas of the body:
- The muscle system (related to energy production and activity levels)
- The brain (related to concentration and memory)
- The immune system (related to keeping infections and autoimmune diseases like eczema away)
Let’s go back to the beginning. Babies get all their nutrition from mom’s breast milk. Therefore, if mom is unhealthy and malnourished, then the breast milk she provides for baby will also be less than optimal.
New moms who are breastfeeding should pay attention to keeping their diets full of healthy nutritional foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruit, fish (rich in omega 3’s) and free from harmful inflammatory processed food.
It is also recommend that mom should breastfeed baby, exclusively, for at least the first 6 months of baby’s life. Baby’s digestive system is still developing and the same diet of breast milk will help stabilize baby’s gut.
When you interrupt breastfeeding with other forms of milk, you risk confusing the gut and this can lead to the body developing problems with digestion of the different types of milk.
When your child is ready to move from breast milk to soft foods and then solid foods, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of food in a growing child’s body.
The food the baby eats gives them energy and are the foundation of the growing of bones, muscles, brains and other organs.
You may look like you have a healthy body, that carries you through your daily routine, but with the slightest bit of stress, your weak spots may begin to show. In children this is will show in their growth and development.
Children who eat diets containing lots of sugar, fats, unhealthy grains as well as chemical-rich foods don’t live up to their best potential. Their diet may:
- Stunt their growth
- Make them less active
It is truly profound how powerful the role of diet is in growing a child.
Every meal should have a base of fresh vegetables and fruit for necessary nutrients. Add to this some healthy protein in the form of lean meat or fish, or even plant-sources of protein. Don’t forget the oils necessary for brain and nerve development, which you can get from nuts and seeds.
The role of grains should be limited, once or twice a week, if at all. Ideally, food should be made at home, where you have control over how the food is prepared and what extras get added into it – you don’t cook with chemical preservatives and food colouring do you?
The golden rule to remember is that you are the parent and adult who is responsible for your child. You are the one who needs to make healthy, nutritious food choices for your child until they are responsible enough to do so themselves.
Boundaries and loving discipline are tools you can use to encourage change in your child’s food choices. But the best teacher is the example you set – if you make consistent healthy food decisions so will your child – the same will happen if you make poor decisions.
If you require more specific nutritional information, or are concerned about any gaps you notice in your child’s diet or rate of growth or development, please speak to your local nutritionist or GP for more advice.
Author: Dr Yesheen Singh