Back to school

Tracy Tredoux explains how to help your children enjoy optimal health when they return to school

It’s that time of year again. Back to school for the kids. Back to waking up early; long days of lessons, exams, projects, sports events, competitions, after-school activities and homework.

With the long school day comes pressure. Pressure to do well. Pressure to concentrate and stay focused. Pressure to have enough energy and brainpower to meet the day’s challenges. And lurking around the corner is winter, with the threat of colds and viruses.

As parents, one of our many roles is to ensure that our children are equipped to deal with these challenges. The good news is that there are many natural ways to strengthen our children’s immunity, support their brainpower and concentration, and ensure their energy remains steady throughout the day.

Keeping colds and flu at bay

Our immune systems are designed to fight disease and to keep viruses and bacteria at bay. Once weakened, we become more vulnerable and susceptible to colds, flu and other more serious illnesses. To build a strong immune system, the body requires certain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, which help it create more of the white blood cells responsible for fighting infection. Eating foods which are rich in these nutrients can help strengthen your child’s immune system and prevent illness.

We often think of kids’ food as being different from adults’. If you take your children out to a restaurant, it is more than likely that you will be offered a separate kids’ menu containing pizza, macaroni cheese, burgers, fries, etc. Then we have kids’ breakfast cereals that tend to be full of refined sugar. It is important to remember that children require good nutrition just as much as adults, in some cases even more as their bodies are still growing and developing. Foods which are high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and unhealthy fats lack the wide variety of vitamins and minerals that help to build a strong immune system.

Encourage your children to eat five portions of different-coloured fruit and vegetables every day. Sneak extra vegetables into pasta bakes, bolognese sauces, fishcakes or meatballs. Make desserts (fruit sorbets or fruit and vegetable ice lollies) or smoothies. It can help to think of a portion as roughly the amount that would fit into your child’s hand.

Vitamin D is another crucial nutrient that helps the body to fight off infection. A recent study found that children who took a vitamin D3 supplement were 42 per cent less likely to contract flu than those who didn’t1. The best source of vitamin D is the sun, although it can be hard to get enough exposure during the short winter days. Good sources of vitamin D in food are fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and egg yolks. Fish are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which have been found to help fight infections in children. Try to include fish at least twice a week. Fish cakes, salmon fish fingers and cod bites all count and are often much more of a hit at mealtimes than fish fillets.

Helping to boost brainpower

If your child wants to perform better at school, certain ‘brain foods’ can help to improve brain function, memory and concentration. The brain is the first of the body’s organs to absorb nutrients from the foods we eat. Feed the body junk food and the brain is likely to suffer. Protein is one of the most important nutrients for brain development, growth and healthy bones. Animal products such as eggs, lean meat, fish, milk, cheese and yogurt are all good sources of protein.

Beef is one of the best absorbed sources of iron and a great source of zinc. Even a minor deficiency in either of these nutrients has been shown to cause a decline in cognitive functioning and memory. The good news is that adding as little as 1oz of beef per day has been shown to make a big difference in the body’s ability to absorb iron from other sources. Encourage your kids to help make beef kebabs with their favourite vegetables added.

Did you know that 60 per cent of the brain is fat? A deficiency in certain kinds of fat can have a huge impact on intelligence and behaviour. To ensure you are giving your children all the essential fats needed, make sure they eat nuts (beware though of nut allergies) and seeds, which you can grind and sprinkle on cereals, soups and salads. Oily fish and eggs are also good sources of essential fats.

Foods for fuel

The school day can be long and tiring. Food is the fuel that gives your child the power to keep going. High-sugar foods will give your child an almost immediate surge of energy, but will set them up for a crash. It’s like putting newspaper on a fire; the fire burns intensely for a short period and then goes out. Foods that digest more slowly release a steady flow of energy for longer (like putting wood logs on a fire).

Ideal breakfasts should avoid high- sugar, processed cereals and should offer protein, fats and complex carbohydrates. Eggs are one of the best foods to start the day with, and even kids who hate eggs tend to enjoy French toast. Use whole-wheat bread and top with sliced fruit. Porridge is another high-fibre, protein-rich food that digests slowly, providing a steady stream of energy. A healthy lunch is equally crucial for maintaining energy levels throughout the afternoon. Whole-wheat sandwiches with protein (chicken, tuna, cheese) are a good option.

Last, but not least, is water. Even mild dehydration causes children to be lethargic, listless, irritable and to struggle concentrating. Make sure your child is drinking water regularly, especially after an active day.

Try this!

Did you know 80 per cent of your child’s immune system resides in his or her gut?

Making sure your child has a balanced gastrointestinal flora plays a very important role in immune function.

Giving your child probiotics as early as possible is ideal and especially crucial when your child is on antibiotics, which kill microbes indiscriminately wiping out the ‘good’ with the ‘bad’. The many important roles of our beneficial bacteria include keeping the ‘bad’ bacteria in check and stimulating immune response.

Meals rich in beans, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables nourish healthy bacteria, helping the probiotics and your child’s own beneficial flora to flourish. Foods high in sugars, processed foods and refined carbohydrates provide nourishment for the unhealthy, ‘unfriendly’ bugs.

Tracy Tredoux is a nutritional therapist, based in London. When not consulting with clients, she posts health and nutrition-related articles and recipes on her website at tracytredoux.com

To find out more, follow her on Facebook: /TracyTredouxNutrition/ and Twitter: @tracytredoux

1. Urashima M, Segawa T, Okazaki M et al.; (2010) Randomized trial of vitamin D supplementation to prevent seasonal influenza A in schoolchildren. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 91(5): 1255- 1260.

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