The right mix of food and fitness for children

For children, meal portions and physical activity vary depending on their age and stage of growth. Here are key considerations when choosing the best of both worlds.
Instilling healthy habits during a child’s early years is an important part of ensuring they grow into healthy adults. Getty Images
Instilling healthy habits during a child’s early years is an important part of ensuring they grow into healthy adults. Getty Images

It is never too early to introduce children to a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.

Dr Maurice El Khoury, specialist paediatrician at Healthpoint hospital in Abu Dhabi, says children are susceptible to poor eating habits if healthy options are not readily available and part of their everyday meals. This is particularly true of processed sugars and fats, which are often eaten at the expense of the other food groups such as vegetables and fruits. Hence, instilling healthy eating habits during these early years is paramount if children are to grow into healthy adults.

“A good diet provides the right quantities, variety and quality to meet the nutritional needs for growth and development,” he says. “It should be based on the combination of main food groups, freshly prepared with healthy cooking techniques, and with limited use of processed ingredients with additives.”

Once children pass the age of six months, in addition to breast milk or formula, they should eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and stick to lean proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, pulses and beans.

A portion size for a 6-month-old being weaned can be as little as a teaspoon, and many children this age won’t want much more than a few spoons or handfuls. Most parents start with foods such as sweet potato, pear and carrot. Meat can be a great source of iron, but are usually introduced later in the first year.

It is important to offer a variety of healthy options, but every child is different and will not necessarily want or need it all.

El Khoury suggests following regular eating patterns in keeping with the child’s age and activity levels. A child needs the most calories, per body weight, during the first 18 to 24 months, and during puberty, he adds. The growth rate is slower outside these periods.

It’s also important that children receive the right kind of vitamins, which is why El Khoury urges parents to“always focus on the quality and variety in the child’s diet, and not so much on the quantities”.

In addition to food quality, as a way of obtaining vitamins, many doctors recommend supplements, such as vitamin D drops, to get the necessary nourishment. These are helpful for children who are 2 years old and younger, particularly for those who are breastfed or have not been exposed to enough sunlight.

Children going through puberty, a period during which they experience a growth spurt, could also benefit from the drops. According to El Khoury, studies also recommend that children in these two categories receive sufficient iron to aid in brain development.

Though creating healthy eating habits early on is important, parents should also encourage regular physical activity as part of their child’s daily routine.

“We often forget or disregard simple things such as riding a bicycle, walking, running, playing outdoors, or even taking the stairs instead of the lift or the escalators,” says El Khoury. “These ‘exercises’ can be started as soon as the child walks, and should be sought as often as possible.”

Individual or group sports are possible from as early as the age of 3, says El Khoury, and can aid the development of motor skills, coordination, concentration, attention and communication skills. It can also provide children with a sense of reward and achievement, and help them learn to socialise.

Certain types of activities, such as violent combat sports or weightlifting, are not appropriate for young children, though El Khoury says basic track and field sports, floor gymnastics and swimming “should be top of any list as an initiation into individual sports”.

Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM


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