I recently researched nutritional deficiencies in children for a talk I gave at a school and came across a study outlining the most common deficiencies in otherwise healthy children who are developing normally without any signs of chronic illness or disease. When I looked at what foods these nutrients are found in, it was yet another affirmation of the importance of eating a whole foods diet.
“Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food.”
Our modern diet is highly processed. Our children eat cereal for breakfast, a sandwich and cookie for lunch, pasta for dinner and a granola bar for a snack. When considering this “diet” it is easy to see that modern-day, seemingly healthy children are eating “substances” (not ”food”) that are lacking in nutrition; they are overfed and undernourished.
3 Most Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Otherwise Healthy Children
#1 Iron transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, muscles and brain. It is essential for immunity and for creating energy from food.
When kids are lacking iron (microcytic anemia) they are low in energy, are often sick and can have a foggy brain. Oftentimes kids with ADD and ADHD are anemic.
Iron is found in meats (lamb, pork, poultry, liver), nuts and seeds, legumes, vegetables, dried fruit and molasses, among other foods.
#2 Vitamin D3 is essential for the absorption of calcium in teeth, bones and muscle. It is a hormone regulator and prevents cancer by promoting cell differentiation. It plays an essential role in immunity and blood sugar regulation as well as cardiovascular, muscle and brain health.
Vitamin D3 deficiencies tend to get worse as children mature. Teens tend to be quite low in Vitamin D3 at a time when they need it most for hormonal regulation, immunity and mental processing.
Vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin found in canned salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, egg yolk and liver. Since the diet can’t provide an adequate amount of Vitamin D3 the best source is sunshine. Because we don’t all have access to sunshine on a regular basis the next best source is supplementation of Vitamin D3.
#3 Calcium/Magnesium are building blocks of bones, teeth and soft tissue. They regulate muscle and nerve function and manage blood vessel contraction and dilation affecting blood pressure.
A deficiency in Calcium could express as periodontal disease, muscle pains/, anxiety, insomnia, hyperactivity or easily broken bones. A calcium deficiency is often apparent at bed time when a child’s body slows down – they may be anxious, have a hard time sleeping or complain of restless legs or “growing pains.”
Calcium can be found in dairy products, broccoli, almonds, oatmeal, kale, and molasses, among other foods.
Honorable Mentions: Zinc, Selenium, B Vitamins, Vitamin C.
A healthy diet is the best way for children to receive nutrition but prevailing farming practices produce less nutritious food and our busy lives don’t always leave room for whole food preparation. I realize how challenging it is to maintain optimal nutrition at all times and thus have become a proponent of prudent supplementation and/or “superfoods.”
A multi-vitamin can be a good way to ensure sure that your child receives adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals make it into the body. Superfoods (see below) are nutrition-dense foods that can contribute additional nutrition to the diet. As well, Vitamin D3 is necessary. I prefer food-based vitamins as they are more readily absorbed by the body. Keep in mind that Iron supplementation should only take place when one has a documented case of Iron Deficiency Anemia. Iron serves as a pro-oxidant (opposite of anti-oxidant) in the body if one is not deficient. If you suspect anemia in your child, have your doctor order a complete blood count (CBC). Remember, supplements are merely a “back-up” - it is important to continue to strive toward a whole foods diet!
(Please see blog post Children Need Whole Foods for more suggestions on how to improve your child’s diet.)
Blue/green algae/spirulina – rich in protein, EFAs, B Vits, minerals, calcium
Seaweeds – iodine
Chia seed – protein, omega 3’s, fiber, calcium
Hemp seed – protein, omega 3’s
Sauerkraut and fermented foods – probiotics, enzymes
Whey protein - high in antioxidants, amino acids, glutathione
Coconut oil - omega 3′s, medium chain fatty acids
Eggs, butter, meats from pastured (not “cage-free” or “free-range”) - high in EPA, Omega 3, Vit A, Vit D
Cod liver oil – Vit A, Vit D, Omega 3′s
Feeding our children doesn’t have to be something that requires a lot of thought or education. It is a simple task, one that we partake in several times a day. Yet it can be daunting to even the most shrewd, creative and nutrition-conscious of parents. How have we, as a culture, as parents, fallen into this abyss of not knowing how to achieve the most primal task of nourishing ourselves and our offspring? Why does just thinking about planning and preparing a meal elicit groans and rebellion from adult and child alike?
Choices: there are too many of them. We have lost our instincts about how to nourish ourselves due the the mass marketing of food and the plethora of ingredients often present in packaged foods. Who would have ever thought, in the early days of mass marketed food, that increased food choices would close doors to so many basic healthy foods by overwhelming our senses and shutting down our basic instincts?
The answer to the question of healthy eating is simple: whole foods. Not crackers, chips, cereals, waffles, pasta and bread; but vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, beans, dairy products and whole grains. Does that mean that we should never eat foods that aren’t whole? No. I truly believe that the stress induced by the attempt to eat completely counter to the modern world can create problems more serious than lack of nutrition. The above mentioned foods have their place in our diets if we desire them, albeit a small place. Moderation is the key point here, keeping in mind that the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) is anything but moderate.
A simple whole-food formula to keep in mind for meal preparation is this:
fruits and vegetables
These are the foods that contain the raw material to fuel the biochechemical processes in our bodies. Make sure that your child has some of each with each meal. Keep the emphasis on the protein and fruits and vegetables because if you are like most folks, the crackers, chips and cookies have their ways of sneaking into our mouths throughout the day as they tend to be our “default” foods. Watch this blog for examples of the above foods, plus specific meal ideas. In the meantime, enjoy the recipe for Kid-Friendly Baked Chicken!