We all know the importance of ‘five-a-day’ and a healthy balanced diet, but what do you do if your busy lifestyle or the temptations of fast food mean that your children aren’t getting all the trace substances they need?
There are four main groups of “micronutrients” essential to the proper working of the human metabolism—vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids.
As vitamins can’t be synthesized in sufficient quantity in the body, they normally come from food. There are 13 essential vitamins, each with complex functions around proper growth and development, so deficiency in any of them can have serious health implications.
Fortunately, since the chemistry of vitamins was determined in the 1930s, it’s been possible to synthesize them and supply them as supplements, in many forms including tablets, capsules, drinks and bars.
It’s quite common to find that young children don’t get enough vitamins, particularly vitamins A and C.
Vitamin A, naturally present in carrots, potatoes, spinach and broccoli, is particularly important for babies and young children, as it strengthens the immune system, helps vision and keeps skin healthy.
Vitamin C is essential for general health and the development of the child’s immune system and also has a function in the absorption of iron. Natural sources include oranges, kiwi fruit, strawberries and peppers.
Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods, such as oily fish and eggs, though it is added to some foods such as fat spreads and breakfast cereals. Sunlight is an important factor in Vitamin D production, but too much exposure to the ultra-violet portion of sunlight carries its own dangers.
The Department of Health recommends vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D for babies and children aged six months to five years old, unless they’re getting more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day.
There are also several minerals essential for the healthy human metabolism; the most common are calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Other minerals are necessary in trace amounts.
Like vitamins, inorganic minerals have specific functions in the human metabolism; for instance, copper helps to produce red and white blood cells and is important for infant growth, brain development, the immune system and strong bones.
Selenium has functions in the immune system and in reproduction, and zinc helps with cell development and carbohydrate processing.
Your kids should be getting a good supply of minerals from a healthy balanced diet, but if necessary, a wide range of nutritional mineral supplements are available.
Essential Fatty Acids, or EFAs, are a form of ‘good fat’ which also function as essential nutrients. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘vitamin F’. Because the body can’t make them, EFAs must be obtained through the diet.
EFAs are essential for the structure and function of every cell in the body and have many functions including managing the absorption of vitamins and minerals, supporting growth of the skin, hair and nails, aiding nerve functions, producing hormones, managing growth and development and supporting the immune system.
There are two main groups of EFAs, saturated and unsaturated, and three major types of unsaturated fatty acids: Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9. Of these, Omega-6 and Omega-3 are essential as the body can’t make them, but Omega-9 can be manufactured from other fatty acids.
Just to complicate things even further, there are two further classifications of fatty acids, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated EFAs include the essentials linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Ranj Singh, which you can also read here!