The new school year is upon us after parents across South Africa scrambled to get their children “back-to=school” ready.
Yet amid the rush to purchase school supplies, text books, and uniforms, nutritional considerations are often left behind.
Parents eagerly send their kids off to school with jam-packed lunchboxes or, if there is no time to pack lunches, simply hand over enough tuck shop money to tide them over for the day. However, do we stop to think about whether what is going into their mouths will help them meet their academic and sport challenges?
Our nation’s children are facing a health crisis. A 2016 national survey conducted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa found that 14.2% of primary school children are overweight.
The 2016 Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card (HAKSA) reveals that less than 20% of children and teens are meeting minimum recommendations for physical activity, and that the average South African teenager consumes three times the recommended amount of sugar per week.
If there aren’t significant interventions in children’s eating habits, it is estimated that by 2025 approximately 268 million five to 17 year olds globally will be overweight, of which 91 million will be obese.
There has also been a sharp rise in behavioural and learning problems in children over the past few decades. Let’s see how diet fits into the picture.
Good nutrition provides the building blocks for a healthy body and brain.
If nutrient intake is inadequate, a child’s development may be hampered. It is important to understand that calories do not equal nutrients.
If a child is eating a large amount of processed foods and snacks (which are calorie dense), they may still end up being nutrient deficient, as these foods are notoriously poor in essential nutrients such as mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, the B vitamins, iron, and calcium to name just a few.
Filling up on junk foods also means that a child won’t be hungry enough to eat healthy nutrient-dense foods, which can further contribute to nutrient deficiencies.
Processed foods, especially those high in refined sugars, trans-fatty acids, and preservatives, have been linked to hyperactivity, mood fluctuations, and concentration difficulties in children.
Research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children who regularly consumed junk (processed) foods at age four-and-a-half were 33% more likely to be hyperactive at age seven than those that ate balanced, whole foods diets.
Other research has found that when children regularly consume fast food during early childhood, they experience slower academic growth in late childhood, and perform worse in standardised tests than their non-junk food eating peers.
There are several reasons why junk foods can have these undesirable effects on children. One reason I would like to focus on is the sugar content in processed foods.
Refined sugars (table sugar, syrups, etc) would never have entered the human diet without technological advancement. It is true that fruits, vegetables, and grains contain natural sugars. However, they also contain fibre to slow down the sugar’s absorption rate into the bloodstream, and numerous important vitamins and minerals.
Refined sugars contain no fibre or nutrients, and cause rapid peaks and dips in blood sugar. Sugar also suppresses the immune system, and increases the risk of obesity.
Additionally, artificial colours and preservatives that normally accompany sugary foods are linked to increased hyperactivity, and add no nutritional value.
So what can you do to help your child succeed in the classroom and enjoy a healthy life into adulthood? Here are some practical tips:
Replace all processed snacks and meals with whole food alternatives (e.g. rolled oats and fresh fruit instead of sugary kiddies cereals; dried fruit and nuts instead of chocolate bars)
Make sure they eat a wholesome breakfast including some protein. This will sustain their energy levels and help them concentrate in class.
Replace soft drinks and pasteurised fruit juices with filtered water, or raw freshly-squeezed vegetable and fruit juices diluted with filtered water.
Choose fresh foods instead of packaged foods (e.g. fresh fruit instead of sugar-coated dried fruit sticks).
Make mealtimes fun by exposing your children to a variety of different colours and flavours. Presenting the food in child-friendly ways (e.g. cutting them into shapes) also increases their willingness to try new foods.
Be patient. Your child’s taste buds will take time to adjust. Slowly introduce new whole foods while phasing out the bad.
While it may seem daunting at first, making the switch will allow your child to reap the rewards for years to come.
So get on board and let your family eat for success in 2018 and beyond.