Children require suitable levels of vitamins, minerals and natural nutrients for both mental and physical growth and development. Yet surveys and research continue to highlight common childhood nutritionally deficiencies in the UK.
As children start a new academic year the latest Government incentive termed the ‘School Food Plan’ is to be wholly applauded. It is a timely reminder of the fundamental importance of good nutrition in the development of children – from infancy through to teenage years and beyond. Indeed good nutrition is essential from preconception stage onward. The outline for the plan is encapsulated with positivity in the following statement:
“This plan is about good food and happiness. It is about the pleasures of growing, cooking and eating proper food. It is also about improving the academic performance of our children and the health of our nation”
The school food plan can be summarised as an attempt to make food and nutrition a more ‘focal’ point in the curriculum and in everyday school life. Not just providing healthy and nutritious meals for children on a daily basis at school, but also teaching them about the positivity surrounding nutrition for their cognitive, physical and emotional development. The plan sets out the following goals for schools across England:
- At least 70% of children eating school meals
- Those children eating tasty and nutritious food
- No child going hungry
- School cooks who are happy, confident, skilled and motivated
- Schools taking a ‘whole school approach’ to food, with creative collaborations between head teachers, school cooks, children, teachers, governors and parents
- Children who know how to feed themselves well, and who enjoy cooking and growing with their families, both at school and at home
- School kitchens that can stand on their own feet financially, enjoying a virtuous cycle of higher take-up, better quality and lower
The Health and Financial Implications
The positive implications of the school food plan are countless – it is not only of vital importance for the health of each child of school age respectively, it is of consequence to the country as a whole. For example the NHS now spends £5.1 billion a year treating illnesses caused by excess weight or obesity, and a further £5.8 billion on other illnesses caused by bad diet. In addition to this, the cabinet office have estimated that around 70,000 premature deaths could be prevented with just moderate changes to eating habits.
A Good Diet
A diet with foods naturally rich in the important vitamins, minerals and natural nutrients is the ideal for us all, at all stages of life. Our diet needs to comprise suitable and balanced levels of proteins, carbohydrates and fibres (etc.) too. A good diet is essential for children to fuel their growth; a child’s body needs a regular intake of vitamins and minerals for physical and mental development.
The ‘Culprits’ in School Meals ?
One has to applaud the many schools throughout the country where staff are producing good meals on very tight budgets and timescales. However unfortunately many schools provide limited or poor nutritional meals where often the default option is ‘fast’ or convenient foods and drinks.
An excess of salt and sugar, low nutrient values, high carbohydrate volumes, high omega 6 content or at worst trans-fats – these are all common issues that are to be found with fast and processed foods, and soft drinks, popular with children; and these nutritional ‘issues’ are present in many school meals today too.
However one other major ‘culprit’ in the diets of many children today is an excess of food additives. These are present in all ‘sugary’ and ‘refined’ foods and drinks. A class of chemicals called ‘excitotoxins’ are extremely common in our food chain and may be simply described as ‘taste enhancers’.
There have been concerns raised for the cognitive affect these chemicals have, particularly in relation to health issues such as behaviour and emotions, sleep cycles and immune functions. This is especially relevant in child development.
The simple rule is the more a food is ‘refined’, ‘processed’ or a ‘fast food’ – the more likely it is to have higher levels of additives. Such foods are also likely to be low in nutritive values and in a processed form not best suited to the human digestive system. Similarly many soft drinks, particularly carbonated ones have not only worrying levels of additives but also high levels of refined sugars.
A Good Example of Nutrition and Childhood Development
It is becoming apparent with research that a healthy and nutritious diet goes hand in hand with academic development and achievement. One case study recently hailed to illustrate this point is Carshalton Boys Sports College. Simon Barber has been the Headmaster for the past ten years and when he took over, only 4% of children were gaining marks of A* to C in their GCSE’s. When Simon started at the school their school dinner system was virtually ‘non-existent’.
Since then, after employing a qualified chef and refurbishing the canteen, the take-up of school dinners has increased to 80%. And the latest academic news from the school is “Last year, 100% of its children got five GCSEs at A* to C grades, 60% including English and maths – putting Carshalton in the top 5% of most improved state secondary schools”.
So we can see that the academic difference across the ten years is vast and Simon is no doubt about the connection between food and academic achievement, “For many of my boys, this lunch will be their main meal of the day. Good food makes them happy, but also helps them work better”.
Essential Nutrition for Children
There is a wide array of nutrients that are vital for the cognitive and physical development of a child – and these must be obtained from diet and optionally supplements. These key nutrients vary little from birth all the way through to adulthood. Below we provide an overview of four of these key nutrients comprising the ‘essential fatty acid’ Omega 3, vitamin D, and the minerals calcium and iron.
The primary food source of Omega 3 is fish and especially oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. The substantial fall in our consumption of fish over recent decades has led to a dramatic lowering of good omega 3 fatty acid levels in our body.
There are 2 types of fatty acid: Omega 3 and Omega 6. When we ingest Omega 3 our body breaks the fatty acids down to 2 other fatty acids – ‘EPA’ (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and ‘DHA’ (Docosahexaenoic acid). These are the components our body uses for many essential activities such as the maintenance of normal vision, normal brain function and the normal function of the heart.
As our consumption of fish has declined but the importance of good Omega 3 is being more publicly recognised there has been a substantial rise in sales of Omega 3 supplements comprising fish oils and krill oils.
Omega 3 fatty acids are now added to baby foods and formulas, and why the Government recommends we eat fish at least twice a week, one of which should be oily fish (recommendations vary for pregnant women).
Omega 3 cannot be synthesised in the body so therefore must be obtained from dietary sources. The lack of Omega 3 in many a child’s diet accentuates the value of appropriate supplements if necessary.
Omega 3 has attracted a great deal of interest in studies researching ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and aspects of learning, behaviour and reading abilities in children. A few small studies have looked at fish oil supplements, which are rich in Omega 3, as part of a treatment for ADHD in children. This is associated with poor (or deficient levels) of Omega 3 in many children due to diet.
Such research indicates Omega 3 supplements may play a role toward improving behaviour, reduce hyper activity and boost attention in children under 12’s. Lower Omega 3 fatty acid levels, for example, have been associated with impaired emotional processing in children suffering from ADHD. Some of the natural properties within Omega 3 fatty acids that may help to exert a beneficial effect include anti-inflammatory properties and influencing serotonin and dopamine levels.
Such studies have proved encouraging in terms of suggesting that good levels of Omega 3 may support a reduction in ADHD symptoms and improved learning functions. However we would stress that there are no permitted health claims for Omega 3 in this respect. We look forward to further studies in this particular area.
We have previously written articles both on Omega 3 research related to childhood behavioural problems and learning abilities, plus an in-depth overview on Omega 3 supplements. The links to these stories are:
Omega 3 has the following permitted health claims (*subject to a daily intake of 250mg of EPA and DHA):
- Contributes to the maintenance of normal brain function
- The maintenance of normal vision
- The maintenance of normal cardiac function
- The maintenance of normal blood pressure
- The maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides
- Choline contributes to the maintenance of normal liver function
Vitamin D is commonly known as the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’ as sunlight is necessary for the synthesis of vitamin D, and those lacking in sunlight are at high risk of deficiency. We can’t stress this point enough as we get most of our vitamin D from the sunlight on our skin where the vitamin is made by our body in reaction to the sunlight.
We all need good levels of vitamin D consistently throughout the year so one can see why there is a particular issue with vitamin D deficiency in countries such as the UK. Vitamin D is not found in abundance naturally in foods. The best sources are oily fish followed by milk and eggs.
Vitamin D is important in pregnancy to support the mother and in particular to provide the foetus and subsequent baby with suitable levels of the vitamin. Vitamin D is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children. For children one consequence of not having enough vitamin D is it can cause their bones to soften and can lead to rickets (a bone development disease in children).
In December 2012 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health expressed ongoing concerns about vitamin D deficiency in UK children leading to an increased range of ailments including a worrying rise in rickets cases.
The UK Department of Health current recommendation is that “Women who are planning a pregnancy or might become pregnant, or who are already pregnant, should take a vitamin D supplement (and folic acid supplement)” It is important to note that post childbirth the chief medical officer for England recommends children aged six months to five-years-old should take vitamin D supplements.
When it comes to vitamin D supplements vitamin D3 is the most bioavailable form of this nutrient, and far preferable to vitamin D2 to supplement with. At Cytoplan we only use and recommend vitamin D3 in a supplement form.
We have previously written articles on the importance of vitamin D including a wealth of information in relation to this nutrient and children. The links to these particular stories are:
These are the current permitted health claims for Vitamin D:
- Vitamin D is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children
- Vitamin D contributes to the normal absorption /utilisation of calcium and phosphorus
- Vitamin D contributes to normal blood calcium levels
- Vitamin D contributes to the maintenance of normal bones and teeth
- Vitamin D contributes to the maintenance of normal muscle function
- Vitamin D contributes to the normal function of the immune system
- Vitamin D has a role in the process of cell division
Calcium is an essential mineral in bone formation; in the development of bones throughout childhood and teenage years and assisting in achieving a peak bone mass essential for maintaining bone density as we age. Calcium levels remain an important consideration for those with a reduced intake of dietary calcium.
Calcium has a number of permitted health claims including ‘calcium is needed for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth’. ‘Calcium and vitamin D are needed for normal growth and development of bone in children.’
Recent research has raised concerns with calcium supplementation and the potential for cardio vascular problems, particularly for men. When looking at supplementing with calcium we would not recommend the common calcium carbonate supplements which are not soluble in the hcl acid of the stomach. High doses are therefore likely to increase the risk of kidney stones and arterial calcification.
Conversely calcium supplements from organic calcified seaweed have a porous and hydrolised surface area because of years in the ocean and this helps it to be very soluble in the hcl acid of the stomach; this permits uptake into food calcium metabolic pathways for optimum end organ fate.
Cytoplan Wholefood Organic Calcium for example is a natural multi-mineral seaweed product harvested off Ireland’s southwest coast. It is an organic wholefood supplement with no additives that yields 200mg elemental organic calcium per capsule plus 74 other trace minerals; it contains no additives.
We have a number of existing blog articles on calcium including information in relation to the importance of this mineral and childhood development. One such article reviews bone development and health:
Iron is the most abundant mineral in our blood. The major function of iron is to combine with protein and copper in making haemoglobin. Iron provides numerous roles including cognitive development, enhancing the immune system, energy production, and resistance to stress and disease. Iron is also involved in respiration as it carries oxygen to all the body cells and is essential for the oxidation of fatty acids.
The mineral iron is found in the brain as a co-factor in the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin, which are known to regulate behaviour. Iron has a number of permitted health claims including ‘contributing to normal cognitive function’ and ‘Iron contributes to normal cognitive development of children’.
A previous article we provided on this blog looked at the potential relevance of iron deficiency and Attention Deficit Disorders in children. The link to this article is:
It is important to note that there are two distinct population groups relating to iron; adult men and post-menopausal women have no great requirements for iron and should get all their needs from their diet. However children and menopausal women have much greater needs for iron and may need an iron supplement to support suitable levels.
Family Meals Nourish Adolescent Mental Health
And finally on the topic of children and meals. Let us take a moment to comment on the importance of eating meals together on a regular basis – whether children are with their family or friends. Sadly this seems to be a tradition that is waning in favour of solitary meals in front of the television. Yet a significant and recent study from Queen’s and McGill Universities Canada seems to be in no doubt that “Regular family suppers contribute to good mental health in adolescents”.
One of the study co-authors (Professor Frank Elgar of McGill) comments “More frequent family dinners related to fewer emotional and behavioural problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others and higher life satisfaction”.
Read more on this research which we covered in a previous article:
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time. If you want to be alerted by email when a new post is published simply add your email address in the ‘Get The Latest Post By Email’ in the right-hand column.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
[email protected], 01684 310099
Cytoplan Nutri Bears are a kids multivitamin and mineral chewable supplement for children aged 3 years upward. Nutri Bears have no artificial ingredients whatsoever, and all natural colours and flavours. Nutri Bears contain the full spectrum of nutrients at the levels children need for optimum health: vitamins D, C and E; B-Complex Vitamins and an appropriate range of minerals including Iron. The nutrients are in a food base of natural apple pectin to aid uptake and use in the body – they are easy, gentle and effective – designed with children in mind but suitable for the whole family.
Cytoplan ‘Lem-O-3’ is a delicious, lemon-flavoured fish oil rich in Omega 3. The oil is a totally clean, stable, whole body fish oil with 7% extract of green lemon and no other flavourings or artificial ingredients. Each 5ml teaspoon will provide 673mg EPA and 462.5mg DHA.
Lem-O-3 is ideal for children who enjoy the taste, and the fish oil can be taken straight from a spoon or mixed with yoghurt It is ideal for all family members including babies and is free from live yeast