The Right Diet is Crucial for a Child’s Optimal Growth and Development

It is definitely an exciting moment watching your child’s each developmental milestone from taking his/her first step to participating in a school’s Sports Day. Besides gaining physical strength and coordination, early formative years (0-8 years old) are also the time where a child’s cognitive, emotional and social developments are polished. In fact, growth is most rapid in the first year of life when an infant’s length increases by 50%.

A healthy diet fuels the body with energy and nutrients, allowing it to function optimally. Children should consume the right calorie amount for their age and adequate nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals to ensure optimum growth and development. If children do not have enough nutrients during rapid growth, it will restrict their growth and development, causing insufficient weight gain and height attainment. Yet, too much calories and lack of physical activity lead to overweight and obesity. The findings from Malaysia’s National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2016 revealed that there was still a high prevalence of stunting (20.7%) and underweight (13.7%) in children below five years old, while the prevalence of overweight has increased to 6.4%.

Overweight and obese children have an increased risk of diet-related chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes mellitus which often continues to adulthood. Stunted kids, on the other hand, often experience detrimental long-term effects such as diminished cognitive and physical development contributing to reduced productive capacity and poor health in adulthood. Thus, it is crucial for parents to ensure their child is getting the right nutrition for optimal growth and development.

Balanced, Moderate and Varied Diet

When planning meals for your child, remember these 3 basic tips.

Balance: A well-balanced diet means to include all the food groups from the Malaysian Food Pyramid in each meal of the day. Eat more foods from the bottom levels and less from the higher levels.

Moderate: Too much or too little is unhealthy especially when it comes to foods and nutrients. It is important to eat the right and sufficient amount following the recommended servings for each food group.

Variety: Eating a variety of food provide us all the required nutrients while increasing diet quality and making it more exciting!

Rice, Cereal & Tubers: As a main energy source, children should eat adequate amounts of carbohydrates. Opt for whole grains as it also provides more dietary fibre for healthy digestion. Start introducing whole grains to children as early as possible and target to achieve half of the daily consumption of grains from whole grains. Try mixing brown rice together with white rice as a start, then make a full switch once your children have accepted the taste and texture.

Fruits & Vegetables: A variety of fruits and vegetables are a must for children to have their daily dose of phytonutrients, dietary fibre, vitamins (e.g. vitamin A, C) and minerals. Establish the principle of “5-a-day” – 5 servings of fruits and vegetables in different colours daily – in early life to make it as a habit carried to adulthood.

Fish, Meat, Poultry, Eggs, Legumes, & Nuts: Protein is the key in children’s growth – to build, maintain and repair body tissues. Lack of protein at a young age will compromise the body’s immune functions. Fish such as mackerel, tuna and salmon are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (i.e. omega-3 and omega-6) for the child’s brain function. Consume meat, poultry and eggs moderately as they can be high saturated fats, increasing heart disease risk in adulthood. Do limit processed foods (e.g. burger patties, sausages, fish ball, nuggets) which are high in salt and preservatives.

Milk & Milk Products: Milk and milk products (e.g. yoghurt, cheese) supply many essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin A and D, which are needed for children’s growth. Calcium is especially important to ensure the growth of strong bones and teeth in children. Thus, parents should encourage children to drink milk and consume other milk products daily. Your child can meet the daily requirement of 2-3 servings by drinking 3 glasses of milk daily or 1 glass of milk, 1 cup of yoghurt and 1 slice of cheese a day.

Healthy Eating Behaviours

There are various healthy eating habits that can be ingrained in the early years so that they will last a lifetime.

  • Never skip breakfast. A nutritious breakfast fuels up a child and enables him to be more energised and stay alert in school.
  • Minimise consumption of food high in fat, oil, sugar and salt. Too much of these contribute to chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure). Try fresh herbs and spices as alternatives to enhance food flavour and taste. Use healthier cooking methods such as boiling, steaming, or grilling for less fats and oils.
  • Encourage healthy snacking. Healthy snacks are a good way to improve diet quality and prevent overeating at mealtimes. Inculcate healthy options of multi-grain biscuits, milk, yoghurt, popcorn or fresh fruits and limit snacks like donuts, potato chips or lekor which are high in sugar, salt and/or fats.

Adequate Exercise

Exercise is very important for a child’s growth and development. It improves cognitive function by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Exercise also promotes physical growth. Bones will be stronger and denser when put to work. In addition to weekly Physical Education in school, allocate at least 60 minutes daily for exercise or sports (e.g. jogging, cycling, badminton, football). Limit sedentary habits of watching television and/or playing online games. Children who learn to enjoy exercise or play sports are more likely to become active adults.

Parents play an important role model to their children, and should practise healthy eating and be physically active themselves. Spend more parent-children time in healthy lifestyle activities such as preparing healthy meals or exercising together to cultivate healthy lifestyle habits in the family. Malnutrition (over- and under-nutrition) during childhood have long lasting effects. Practise the right diet and healthy lifestyle from young is crucial for the child’s optimal growth and development, to be healthy adults later in life.

An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.

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