Protein is essential to provide building blocks in the body and vital for growth and repair, particularly for young, rapidly growing bodies. Protein rich foods include lean meat, eggs, pulses, beans, wholegrains, quinoa, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. It makes sense to build a meal around a good quality protein source in order to provide the tools for optimal growth and repair for the body. Protein also helps keep blood sugar levels balanced by slowing down the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Fats are important for many processes within the body including providing energy, cell structure, production of many hormones, nerve protection and brain development. There are three main types of dietary fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. We have unfortunately become rather fat-phobic in recent years with the growing popularity for low fat diets. Fat is especially important for children, and a lack of quality fat can be attributed to many of today’s conditions such as eczema and some behavioural disorders.
See the chart below for sources of good fats (saturated fats have valuable health benefits but are best eaten in moderation):
- Hard cheese
- Coconut oil and flesh
- Olive oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Nuts and seeds
- (Linoleic Acid)
- Flaxseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Green leafy vegetables
- (Alpha Linolenic Acid)
- Sesame seeds
- Evening primrose oil
- Peanuts and peanut oil
- Olive oil
Hydrogenated oils such as margarines and any industrially hardened fats (also known as trans fats) should be avoided wherever possible. These tend to be found in biscuits, cakes, pastries and crisps.
The body uses carbohydrate as its main source of fuel for energy. They are two main types: refined or complex. Refined carbohydrates include sugar, honey, malt, sweets and most refined foods containing white flour. Complex carbohydrates provide a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream and help our bodies release energy more evenly. These include wholemeal and wholegrain varieties, brown rice and whole oats. Refined carbohydrates, such as white flour which has been stripped from the grain has lost many of its valuable nutrients, and can cause our blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly, with consequences such as mood swings, irritability, energy slumps, etc.
Fibre is important for several reasons. Firstly, both soluble and insoluble fibre is required for maintaining a healthy digestive system and elimination of toxins from the body. It is also helpful for slowing down the release of sugar into our bloodstream, helping to stabilise our blood glucose levels, and therefore our energy. Soluble fibre, found in foods such as apples, pears, carrots, dried fruit, sweet potatoes, pulses, oats and brown rice, provide important soluble fibre for a healthy digestive system.
Using whole grains in place of refined grains is a great way to ensure you are providing your child with plenty of fibre.
Vitamins are needed in a smaller amount than fat, protein and carbohydrates and can be divided into two main groups: fat soluble and water soluble. The fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K, need sufficient fats in the diet in order to absorb them. They can be stored in the liver. Water soluble vitamins (such as vitamin C and the B vitamins) are excreted rather than stored, so need to be eaten regularly, ideally on a daily basis, to maintain optimal levels.
Minerals are classified as either macro-minerals or trace minerals. Macro-minerals include those such as calcium, magnesium and trace minerals (just as important but needed in smaller amounts) such as zinc, selenium and chromium.
Nutrients have a multitude of roles in the body and are used in every process in varying quantities. The production of energy for example, something used in huge amounts by children, requires a number of different nutrients such as all the B vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, coQ10 as well as minerals such as iron, copper, magnesium and zinc. This gives us some indication of just how important it is to try to optimise the nutrients we get from food as much as possible.
Below is a chart explaining the role of each vitamin and mineral:
|Important for immune function, skin health and growth. It is also an antioxidant.
|Helps the body to utilise calcium for strong and healthy bones.
|Important for immune function and skin health and can help with wound healing. It is also an antioxidant.
|Important for blood clotting and bone health.
|Important for healthy functioning of heart, muscles and nerves and for energy production.
|Helps convert fat, carbohydrates and protein into energy. Also important for healthy skin, nails and eyes.
|Important for energy production, brain function and healthy skin.
|Important for energy production and hormone health, as well as helping to keep skin and hair healthy.
|Important for energy production and healthy functioning of the nervous system.
|Important for energy production and for the development of healthy red blood cells (with folic acid). It also supports healthy functioning of the nervous system.
|Important for the health of skin, hair, nerves and bone marrow, particularly in children.
|Important for growth, development and reproductive health as well as for brain and nerve function. Involved in the production of red blood cells.
|Strengthens the immune system and helps the body to fight infections, as well as supporting wound healing. Important for healthy teeth, bones, gums and blood vessels. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron.
|Important for bone and tooth formation, as well as blood clotting and healthy muscle function (makes muscles contract).
|Helps to metabolise calcium, and for healthy muscle function (acts as a muscle relaxant).
|Involved in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and healthy functioning of the circulatory system.
|Important for growth and development in children. Involved in the production of haemoglobin. Helps the body build up resistance to disease.
|Important for immune function and fighting infections. Involved in growth and development and skin health.
|Involved in healthy functioning of cell membranes, and helps stimulate the immune system to fight infections. It is also an antioxidant.
Phytonutrients are special compounds found in fruit and vegetables. Good nutrition used to be just about vitamins, minerals and food groups. With advances in nutritional research, we have started to understand some of the health benefits of a colourful range of plant compounds we call phytonutrients.
Many of them are thought to have antioxidant action. Antioxidants help to swallow up harmful free radicals that can cause inflammation and have been linked to cancer.
Phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals often work best in conjunction with each other. This is one of the reasons why the importance of eating the whole fruit – or vegetable – and choosing a rainbow array of colours to ensure you are getting as many phytonutrients as possible.