I have long held the belief that the health and strength of a nation has its very beginning in the food we feed our children. Yes, I know that is a big claim but good nutrition leads to healthy and happy young people and they are our future.

Our children are getting sicker

Sadly the western diet is achieving the exact opposite – as our children are eating more and more processed and junk food with little nutrient and high in sugar, bad fats and filled with chemicals, they are getting sicker. Is it any surprise therefore that childhood obesity is on the rise, behavioural problems are increasing and childhood disorders/illnesses are almost the norm?

Foods can have a huge impact on babies, toddlers and children. If a child has any problems with skin (eczema), respiratory passages, gastrointestinal tract (pain, constipation) or behaviour (ADHD), then looking at their diets and reactions to food as a possible source of the problem will make a huge difference to their quality of life and yours.

The missing link between the foods that children eat and common childhood disorders are hypersensitive reactions which may manifest in many different ways.

Approximately three to seven percent of children and adults have food allergies or food intolerances. Food sensitivities have been called the great marauders because they are a hidden cause of so many problems and chronic illnesses.

BABIES

It can start in the first few weeks of a baby’s life. Even if with breastfeeding, certain foods in the mother’s diet may cause symptoms of food allergy or intolerance in her breastfed baby. Recent studies from the Paediatric unit of St Guys Hospital in London have shown that nearly 50% of babies suffer colic due to LACTOSE INTOLERANCE. When the mother’s diet for breast fed babies or the formula for bottle fed babies was changed, the babies’ symptoms significantly reduced or disappeared.

Consider then that a baby may have a food allergy or intolerance if you have an unsettled baby, displaying some of the following symptoms:

  • Fussy feeder,
  • Pulls away from feeds and cries whilst obviously hungry,
  • Difficult to settle,
  • Constantly waking/catnapping – one sleep cycle or less
  • Nappy rash, burnt bottom,
  • Colic/ wind pain,
  • Persistent crying or screaming in pain,
  • Respiratory problems – wheezing, stuffy nose, asthma, cough, infections,
  • Copious dirty nappies – possible pain before and during bowel motion,
  • Poor weight gain.

Other symptoms such as vomiting or reflux, eczema or other type of spotty rash, constipation or diarrhoea have also been linked to allergic reactions.

Scientific research now supports the link between abdominal pain, food allergies, and reflux in infants. In just under half the cases of Reflux in infants less than 1 year of age, Reflux was found to be not only associated with cow’s milk allergy but actually induced by it. Symptoms improved after dietary elimination of the specific food proteins found in milk.

TODDLERS

The link between food and behaviour and food and illness becomes very apparent when babies are given their first solid foods.

It has long been recommended by World Health Organisation to delay solids until 6 months of age especially if there is a family history of food allergy. Also to delay the introduction of foods to which other family members are allergic. The best way is to introduce one food at a time – then wait for four days before introducing another food. Fresh pureed vegetables such as sweet potato or pumpkin are good ways to start solid foods.

As unhealthy snack foods are all around us, with toddlers it is best to

  • Always offer a range of nutritious food.
  • Avoid cordials and too much fruit juice as these are high in sugar and take away the appetite for other foods.

Whether or not food additives such as artificial colours contribute to behavioral problems in children has been disputed for many years. But a new carefully designed (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled) study published in the journal The Lancet in 2010 concluded that a variety of common food dyes, and the preservative sodium benzoate – found in many soft drinks, fruit juices and salad dressings – do cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.

The seven ingredients tested in the study included: (Sodium benzoate (E211), Sunset yellow (E110), Quinoline yellow (E104), Carmoisine (E122), Tartrazine (E102), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura red AC (E129)

The worst behavioral responses from the additives were seen in the three-year-olds, compared to the older children in the study. But even within each age group, some children responded very strongly, and others not at all, indicating there are individual differences in how well a child’s body can tolerate the assault of artificial additives. One theory is that the additives may trigger a release of histamines in certain sensitive kids.

YOUNG CHILDREN TO TEENAGERS

If we need more proof that the Western diet of high sugar, low fibre processed foods and unhealthy fats contributes to allergies and other problems, then a study last year (2010) offers more insights.

A team from Florence University in Italy compared children in industrialized countries who consume lots of modern junk food to children in a small village in Burkina Faso, Africa, who eat primitive diets. They found they are more prone to allergies and that diets rich in bad fats and processed sugars — the kind eaten by most industrialized children today — disrupt healthy gut bacteria and replace it with harmful bacteria. More primitive diets composed mostly of cereals, beans, nuts and fresh vegetables — the kind eaten by the African children — help to properly balance gut bacteria.

According to the report, gut bacteria is vital in processing food, protecting the body from disease and inflammation, and maintaining health and immunity. The bacterial compositions found in junk food-eating children are actually causing obesity, allergies, eczema, inflammation, autoimmune disorders and other illnesses.

The picture gets even worse when other studies from this year published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry have suggested that the brain’s response to the tempting appeal of a sugary, fatty milkshake or to a bag of salty, greasy snack chips appears to be the same response a drug addict’s brain exhibits when anticipating the next “hit”.

Based on data gathered using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team discovered that the two areas of the brain known to respond to drug addiction — both responded to sensory cravings for milkshakes and chips.

Many processed junk foods are loaded with flavor enhancing chemicals like monosodium glutamate (MSG), high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and aspartame, all of which are known to be highly-addictive.

In adolescents, the link of a western processed diet to ADHD and behavioural disorders has been shown in an Australian study. Having an ADHD diagnosis was associated with a diet high in takeaway foods, processed meats, red meat, high fat dairy products and sweets. It has been suggested that the Western dietary pattern doesn’t provide enough essential micronutrients that are needed for brain function, particularly attention and concentration, and that a Western diet might contain more colours, flavours and additives that have been linked to an increase in ADHD symptoms. A diagnosis of ADHD was not associated with a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and fish.

So what’s the answer to improve our children’s health?
healthy food
Healthy food = healthy baby and then child and then teenager!
The first thing is to recognize is that health starts in the mouth. What we put in our bodies directly influences how we feel. As parents WE control what babies, toddlers and young children eat. It is up to us to give the freshest, least chemically corrupted food that we can.

It starts with PLANNING – sourcing the food, creating the meals, making eating a pleasurable experience. The following are some tips that have worked for me even with teenagers:

  1. Grow your own vegetables where possible. If space is a problem, then grow in pots – there is usually room for even some simple herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme to add flavour and nutrients.
  2. Buy fresh food – vegetables and fruit especially. Offer them first when children are hungry, usually just as you are preparing a meal!
  3. Involve children in the experience of meals whether harvesting from the garden or helping to cook. Use your kitchen as a classroom to teach them what real food is and where it comes from – show them it is not always in containers sealed with plastic.
  4. Plan ahead to pre prepare some meals particularly if work or children’s after school activities mean you come home late. Make a weekend day a cooking day. Add a fresh salad to this meal especially if the main part of the meal has been frozen.
  5. Make breakfast an important part of the day. A filling nutritious breakfasts such as eggs, oats (muesli or porridge) will supply brain food for longer and also not lead to a craving for carbohydrates to give them energy.
  6. Share meals as a family – use it as a bonding time to talk about the day’s activities. Avoid TV dinners.

Make the golden rule having most meals with NO JUNK or FAST FOOD.

The secret to your health and your children’s health is preparing real food from organic whole ingredients as has been done over the centuries.

Finally with a commitment to fresh unprocessed food, you will be rewarded with a happy child that has fewer behaviour and medical problems.