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Healthy eating for a healthy child

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Parents, these days, are often inundated to the point of confusion and paralysis when it comes to figuring out what to feed their kids. In this article, inspired by the latest version of Canada’s Food Guide, we take a step back from the smoke and mirrors and focus on what really matters when it comes to your child’s diet.

Parents always want what’s best for their children. But it isn’t always easy to figure out what that is, especially when it comes to food choices.

Most parents would probably admit they’re more concerned with what they put in their child’s body than they are with what they put in their own.

Unfortunately, that also means that they’re more susceptible to being influenced by less than reputable messaging about what it means to feed a child well. And we all know that marketing messages are ubiquitous and persuasive.

I’m here to help quiet the noise, provide expert insight, and to also draw on reliable wisdom from some very relevant health messages that Health Canada’s new food guide has to offer.

Are they getting enough?

Since I know parents are concerned about their children getting enough of the vitamins and minerals they need to grow healthy and strong, let’s kick off the conversation by looking at the three that Canadian kids are at highest risk of falling short of.

1. Potassium

Potassium plays an important role in the strength and functionality of bones and muscles, including the heart. Health Canada has found that many Canadian children may not meet their needs for potassium. The fact that Canadian kids also consume far more sodium than is healthy for their long-term health is concerning, since the combination of too much sodium and too little potassium in our diet is associated with higher blood pressure.

Potassium is available in a wide array of foods, but depending on the quality of your child’s diet, they may not be getting enough of this important mineral.

My top-five kid-friendly food choices to get more potassium into your child’s diet include bananas, sweet potatoes, yogurt, tomatoes, avocados, and oranges.

2. Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be a tricky one for both kids and adults in Canada. This is especially true in the winter when the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to promote vitamin D synthesis in the skin, which can also be inhibited by the use of sunblock in the summer months.

Although it’s found naturally in very few foods, Health Canada does not widely recommend vitamin D supplementation in children above the age of 2; instead they urge parents to focus on a healthy, varied diet to get enough.

The richest kid-friendly sources of vitamin D include salmon (all types), cow’s milk or fortified milk alternatives such as oat or soy, and eggs (with the yolks).

Fish is by far the richest source of dietary vitamin D, but certain varieties such as fresh/frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, escolar, marlin, orange roughy, and canned albacore (white) tuna should be mostly avoided to minimize mercury exposure.

If your child is not a regular consumer of the foods listed above, consider speaking with your healthcare professional about vitamin D supplementation.

3. Fibre

Fibre promotes good digestive health and regular bowel movements in both children and adults and is woefully inadequate in most Canadians’ diets.

Some of the richer, more fun, and versatile sources of fibre for kids include popcorn, berries, oatmeal, carrots, avocados, almonds, and chia seeds.

The new Canada’s Food Guide and your child

Many of you will probably be aware that one of Health Canada’s major goals with the new food guide was to push people toward more non-meat protein choices. That’s precisely why nuts, seeds, fish, tofu, and beans are a bit more prominent in the protein section.

Health Canada is fully aware that as people tend toward more vegetarian diets, they tend to have better health outcomes in the long term.

Where Health Canada may have failed is in making it even more explicit that it’s in our best interest to choose more plant-based protein sources and to reduce or eliminate consumption of red meat and processed meat.

Improving plant-based iron absorption

Iron from non-meat sources such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts, and seeds is not as well absorbed by our bodies as iron from meat. To boost apsorption of plant-based iron, ensure that vitamin C-rich foods like fruits and vegetables are part of most meals and snacks.

Sodium and the new food guide

There’s more focus in the new guide on being more mindful of our eating habits, like cooking more often and enjoying our meals with others. This is a departure from previous food guides and comes following extensive and varied research on the effects of eating habits on our long-term health outcomes.

Did you know?

Nearly three quarters of Canadian children between the ages of four and 13 consume too much sodium.

This is a staggering statistic and may contribute to an increased risk of high blood pressure for children later in life. Health Canada is well aware of this problem. That’s precisely why the new Canada’s Food Guide tells us directly to limit our sodium intake and also advises to cook more meals at home and read food labels, both of which are important considerations when it comes to sodium intake.

Read labels carefully

Reading food labels allows us to choose the lowest–sodium products available in important categories like breads, soups, cheeses, sauces, and condiments.

Cook at home more

Cooking more meals at home helps to reduce sodium intake from prepared foods such as processed meats, cold cuts, burgers, chicken fingers, and frozen or fast food meals.

Andy De Santis, RD, MPH, is a dietitian operating a private practice in Toronto. An avid blogger  (andytherd.com), Andy also loves combining nutrition education and humour on Instagram @andytherd.

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