Good nutrition for children is a no-brainer

Helen O’Callaghan on putting a back-to-school focus on kids’ diet.

WITH school starting, children will face many demands on their concentration and energy, so it’s important parents do their homework and fill nutritional gaps in kids’ diets.

Key nutrients to focus on are iron, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids – all essential brain foods. 

The WHO estimates iron deficiency accounts for 40-50% of anaemia in children – symptoms are paleness, tiredness, irritability and poor appetite.

“Iron is really important for children who are trying to learn. Without it, they’re more tired and less well able to oxygenate the brain as it learns,” explains Daniel McCartney, DIT lecturer in dietetics .

Good iron sources include red meat, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), offal and eggs. Aim for red meat three times weekly, oily fish at least twice and eggs on a couple days of the week. 

Plant sources of iron (look for fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal cereals, green leafy vegetables, peas, beans, nuts, dried fruits) also raise intake, but require vitamin C to aid absorption (found in most fruits and in tomatoes, broccoli, peppers).

Another key brain food is omega-3, found in dark- fleshed fish – salmon, sardines, mackerel, kippers, trout (rainbow), fresh tuna, herring and pilchards.

Plant sources include oils (rapeseed or canola oil, walnut, soya oil), dark green vegetables, nuts and flaxseeds.

Calcium and vitamin D (sunshine vitamin) are essential for strong bone development, with vitamin D also important for brain development. 

Yet, 37% of girls and 28% of boys aged five to 12 don’t get recommended daily amounts of calcium. And 88% of primary school children have less than half the recommended daily amount of vitamin D.

“If a child has good vitamin D levels, it’ll help the brain develop connections. Everyone over age five should take a 5mcg daily vitamin D supplement,” says McCartney. 

Look for vitamin D in oily fish, fortified foods and eggs. Calcium-rich foods include yogurt, milk, cheese, bread, nuts and some dark green vegetables.

Meanwhile, research suggests mild dehydration can lead to lower concentration and mental performance in children. In one study, 58 seven- to nine-year-olds were put in two groups: one group followed their normal drinking habits – the other got extra water (250ml). 

The latter group performed better in visual attention tasks. Another study found having access to a 250ml bottle of water significantly improved kids’ visual attention and fine motor skills in school.

TOP TIPS

* A good night’s sleep followed by breakfast helps a child concentrate and stay active.

* Ensure breakfast includes at least two fruits or vegetables, as well as healthy proteins (milk, yoghurt, eggs, nuts, seeds).

* Encourage your child to drink water before each meal/snack.

* School lunch should include at least two vegetables/fruits; healthy proteins (meat, fish, poultry, beans, peas, lentils, milk, yogurt, eggs); and high fibre carbohydrates.



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