They are what they eat

Sharon Ní Chonchúir out­lines the im­por­tance of a var­ied diet — and the right foods — for ba­bies and toddlers

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

FEED­ING a baby is a messy busi­ness. No mat­ter how care­fully you try to spoon the food into their mouth, most of it seems to end up smeared all over their face or on the floor.

It’s a vi­tal task nev­er­the­less. Es­tab­lish­ing a var­ied diet of nu­tri­tious food from an early age is what lays the foun­da­tions for life­long good health.

Med­i­cal ex­perts, in­clud­ing those at the Food Safety Author­ity of Ire­land (FSAI), recog­nise that the first 1,000 days of life — from con­cep­tion up un­til the child’s sec­ond birth­day — of­fer a unique op­por­tu­nity to shape that child’s health in the fu­ture.

So much hap­pens in a child’s body dur­ing this time, more than will hap­pen at any other phase of their life cy­cle. An in­fant’s weight dou­bles by six months and triples by one year and by two years old; toddlers are ap­prox­i­mately 75% longer than when they were born.

The right nu­tri­tion at this time can play a crit­i­cal role in pre­vent­ing chronic diseases. Re­search pub­lished by Is­raeli pae­di­atric gas­troen­terol­o­gists Yi­gal Elen­berg and Ron Shaoul in 2014 makes this point clearly. They found that ex­po­sure to a wide va­ri­ety of foods from an early age can re­duce the risk of al­ler­gies, atopic der­mati­tis, and asthma.

Early ex­po­sure to gluten can de­crease the odds of coeliac dis­ease and type 1 di­a­betes in in­fants with a fam­ily his­tory of the con­di­tions, and breast­feed­ing ex­clu­sively up to the age of four months may bring down the risk of obe­sity in later life.

“From nu­tri­tion in the womb to the first two years of life, we grow so rapidly,” says Aveen Ban­non, a con­sul­tant di­eti­tian at the Dublin Nu­tri­tion Cen­tre. “Our brains de­velop and our im­mune sys­tem be­comes stronger. The food a mother eats dur­ing preg­nancy and the food that a baby is given to eat is vi­tal.”

A mother’s nu­tri­tion dur­ing preg­nancy has an im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of the foe­tus and helps es­tab­lish an ad­e­quate store of nu­tri­ents at birth.

Ruth Charles, the pae­di­atric di­eti­cian be­hind NutriKids, has spe­cific ad­vice for preg­nant women. “Mothers need to get lots of cal­cium, vi­ta­min D, iron and omega 3 fats for them­selves and the baby as well as enough calo­ries to main­tain healthy preg­nancy weight gain,” she says.

“They should use the food pyra­mid as a healthy eat­ing guide with a fo­cus on sea­sonal and nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents as op­posed to pro­cessed foods.”

The foods to avoid are al­co­hol and foods that are high in fat, salt, and su­gar, says Charles.

“There’s no need to avoid eat­ing cer­tain foods in the hope of pre­vent­ing food al­ler­gies. There’s no ev­i­dence to sup­port that. Preg­nant mothers should eat as wide a va­ri­ety of foods as pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing nuts and seeds.”

Once ba­bies are born, breast­feed­ing mothers need to con­tinue eat­ing well. “Breast­milk is cus­tom made by each mother to meet her baby’s needs but it’s main­tained at the ex­pense of the mother’s nu­tri­tion.”

In or­der to meet both mother and baby’s needs, mothers should drink plenty of wa­ter and pay close at­ten­tion to what they eat.

“It’s a good idea to drink a glass of wa­ter ev­ery time the baby feeds,” says Ban­non. “Mothers need up to 500 ex­tra calo­ries a day and they should get these from as wide a va­ri­ety of foods as pos­si­ble. They should also take a vi­ta­min D sup­ple­ment and on oc­ca­sion, I would rec­om­mend a mul­ti­vi­ta­min to en­sure ad­e­quate nu­tri­tion in the diet.”

The FSAI’s best prac­tice for in­fant feed­ing in Ire­land guide of­fers prac­ti­cal ad­vice on all as­pects of food and nu­tri­tion from con­cep­tion through the first year of life. It rec­om­mends mothers in­clude at least one por­tion of oily fish in their weekly diet to help with the brain and eye de­vel­op­ment of their ba­bies, and to con­sume at least three por­tions of cal­cium-rich foods ev­ery day.

Ba­bies should also get a vi­ta­min D sup­ple­ment of their own. Vi­ta­min D is essen­tial for good bone health as it helps our bod­ies to ab­sorb cal­cium. Low lev­els of the vi­ta­min have also been linked with heart dis­ease and di­a­betes. Cur­too rently, par­ents are ad­vised to give 5ug to ba­bies ev­ery day, no mat­ter whether they are breast­fed or for­mula fed.

By six months of age, breast­milk or for­mula is no longer enough for an in­fant’s nu­tri­tional needs. It’s time for solid food.

Some ba­bies may ben­e­fit from a slightly ear­lier in­tro­duc­tion to solid food. How­ever, this should be no ear­lier than four months (17 weeks). A baby’s kid­neys and di­ges­tive sys­tem are too im­ma­ture un­til then and, ac­cord­ing to the FSAI, be­ing in­tro­duced to solids early can in­crease the risk of coeliac dis­ease, type 1 di­a­betes and wheat al­lergy in later life.

The FSAI has also found that some 20% of Ir­ish six-month-olds are con­sum­ing foods that are too high in sat­u­rated fats, salt, and su­gar. This could have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on their health in later life.

“Foods that are high in fat, salt and su­gar are best avoided,” says Charles. “Even though they con­tain calo­ries, there is usu­ally min­i­mal other nu­tri­tion and de­vel­op­ing kid­neys don’t need the ex­tra chal­lenge of high salt. These foods also con­trib­ute to child­hood obe­sity and poor den­tal health in later life.” So, what should they be eat­ing? “Ir­ish par­ents tend to give puréed fruits, veg­eta­bles and rice as first foods,” says Charles. “But there’s no rea­son why puréed meat or lentils couldn’t be given too. Reg­u­lar fam­ily foods made from good qual­ity raw in­gre­di­ents is pre­ferred.”

Ban­non rec­om­mends a var­ied diet. “The bet­ter va­ri­ety you can give your child, the bet­ter in terms of fu­ture taste and health,” she says. “In­tro­duce one new food at a time ev­ery two to three days and by the time the child reaches 12 months, they should have a sim­i­lar diet to the rest of the fam­ily.”

Be­sides va­ri­ety, par­ents should pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to cer­tain nu­tri­ents, es­pe­cially iron, zinc and fat-sol­u­ble vi­ta­mins A and D. “The baby is born with stores of these from its mother but by six months stores are run­ning low,” she says.

“They now need to get these nu­tri­ents from foods they eat.” Omega 3 fats are an­other pri­or­ity at this stage. Breast­milk and for­mula milk are high in these fats so par­ents need to make sure they make up the short­fall when baby starts to tran­si­tion to solid food. They are found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, her­ring, mack­erel, and sar­dines as well as leafy green veg­eta­bles and eggs.

Ban­non cau­tions par­ents about fi­bre in the diet. “Too much fi­bre can fill a child up so that they don’t eat enough calo­ries,” she says.

“The key things to re­mem­ber for any baby or small child is that they have small stom­achs but they re­quire lots of en­ergy to grow and de­velop. This means they need small serv­ings, reg­u­lar meals, reg­u­lar healthy snacks and lots of va­ri­ety, with­out too much of any one thing.”

Pic­ture: IStock

FOOD AD­VEN­TURES: Ex­perts say that the bet­ter the va­ri­ety of food given to a child, the bet­ter they are in terms of fu­ture health and taste.

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