Turning five is a big milestone for children – for starters it marks the beginning of school. In this, the newest chapter in our series on healthy eating in partnership with the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka, we speak this month with Clinical Nutritionist Dr. Angela de Silva, President of the Nutrition Society of Sri [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Pack in the energy as they head to school


Turning five is a big milestone for children – for starters it marks the beginning of school. In this, the newest chapter in our series on healthy eating in partnership with the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka, we speak this month with Clinical Nutritionist Dr. Angela de Silva, President of the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka on what the ideal diet for a schoolchild and adolescent should incorporate. 

Pointing out those children between the age of five and ten grow significantly, but at a slower rate than younger children, Dr. de Silva says “energy is needed for supporting growth as well as for supporting physical activity and since children of this age are highly physically active, their energy needs are high.” For older children, who are undergoing a ‘pubertal’ growth spurt associated with adolescence, energy needs are higher, but also vary depending on gender, body size and shape. In the case of a child that is very active, parents need to ensure they’re eating enough to support that regime.

Not only energy requirement but the requirement for other nutrients such as proteins, fat, and the micronutrients like vitamins and minerals must also correspondingly increase. Pointing out that school-going children also face other challenges to their food choices and eating habits which are usually not faced by younger children, she adds “decisions about food choices are partly determined by influences from friends at school, and the media, especially television. Further, food choices maybe shaped by what is available in school cafeterias, vendors, and exchanges of food with other children.”

Not all these decisions will be healthy ones, and parents need to keep in mind that poor nutrition compromises growth and the ability for physical capacity; worryingly it can also affect your child’s participation and learning in school. The symptoms of energy and protein deficiency include inadequate growth, lethargy and poor capacity for work; both mental and physical. Deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron and zinc may lead to impairment of growth and development, reduced immunity and increased vulnerability to common infections.

“Providing adequate calories and other nutrients with healthy food choices and snacks is important to prevent both: under or over nutrition,” says Dr. de Silva. Breaking it down, she explains that the majority of the energy of a child should come from carbohydrate foods, especially complex carbohydrates such as cereals and grains, rather than simple sugars. Healthy fats are also important, and should include small amounts of saturated fats as well as monounsaturated fats (from plant oils, avocados, nuts) and polyunsaturated fats (vegetable and fish oils). 

Don't use food as a reward or bribe

Like adults, children too need to limit their intake of trans-fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, biscuits, fried and baked foods. Protein plays a critical role as it builds, maintains and repairs body tissue. “It’s important that parents provide adequate proteins through meat, fish, poultry, milk and other dairy products and also from soy, and other legumes,” says Dr. de Silva. A general rule of thumb is that a diet should be varied. “These children are required to eat a variety of foods from each food group as mentioned in the Food Based Dietary Guidelines for Sri Lankans to ensure optimal intake of all nutrients,” says Dr. de Silva. Parents, whether they like it or not, lead by example. So the foods they choose and their own eating habits are likely to rub off on their children.

“This age is the time when children tend to become overweight or obese, giving rise to greater risk for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, and poor self-esteem, as well as long-term health problems in adulthood,” cautions Dr. de Silva. If a child is already struggling to manage their weight, it’s important not to ridicule them or place too much emphasis on being thin. “Instead, ensure that the child eats healthily and gets plenty of physical activity,” she says, adding, “adolescence is the time when children, especially girls, develop body image issues, which may lead to eating disorders, so parents should be careful not to over emphasise on body shape and size.” 

As children grow, the two genders begin to have different nutritional requirements, with puberty marking a critical milestone. “At puberty, nutritional needs change,” says Dr. de Silva. “A surge in appetite around the age of ten in girls and twelve in boys occurs during the growth spurt of puberty.” In the teen years, boy who are physically bigger and have more lean muscle mass have higher calorie and protein requirements than girls but because the latter have blood loss due to menstruation, their iron needs are greater.”

Girl or boy, don’t be surprised if your child displays a healthy appetite. Children fuel their growth spurts by eating almost constantly. However, the best distribution is eating three meals a day, punctuated by two nutritious snacks while limiting the intake of high sugar and high fat foods. Healthy snacks could include fruits and vegetables, nuts, some starchy foods (if the child’s energy requirements are high) and dairy products. Children should be encouraged to drink plenty of water, and intake of other drinks, especially carbonated or sugar sweetened beverages should be discouraged.

Not all convenience foods are bad though. While most are unhealthy, often with high salt, sugar or fat, Dr. de Silva says a tea bun, a readymade sandwich or submarine can provide much needed calories on occasion. “Fast foods should be limited to 1-2 times a month, but not strictly prohibited since forbidding children certain foods will make it more attractive to them. No matter how well parents promote healthy eating, it can be difficult for any kid to avoid the temptation of junk food. The best solution is to offer healthy alternatives.”

Dietary Do’s and Don’ts for children aged 5 – 18

Do have regular family meals. Knowing that meals will be cooked and served at approximately the same time each day/night and the entire family will be sitting down together enhances healthy eating and sets a regular meal pattern for kids.

Don’t buy food from outside all the time, such meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. 

Do get children involved in shopping for food and its preparation. This is a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods and learn about the importance of healthy foods.

Don’t use food as a reward or bribe. 

Do be patient. Picky eating is not uncommon and it is best to offer a variety of foods regularly (but never force) until the child gradually learns to accept new foods.

Don’t assume that cutting back on chocolates and sweets is all your child needs to do to limit their sugar and salt intake. Large amounts of added sugar can also be hidden in foods such as fizzy beverages, breads, sauces and biscuits. Minimise processed or packaged foods and fast food.

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