The early years are very important for laying the foundations of good nutrition.
The nutritional deficiencies created at this age may result in diminished cognitive skills, and life long eating patterns that may cause disorders later in life leading to obesity.
According to the “National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau of India”, over 50% of apparently healthy looking children have sub-clinical or biochemical deficiencies of vitamin A, vitamins B2, B6, folate and vitamin C.
Over two-third of children have clinical evidences of iron deficiency while deficiency of trace minerals like iodine and zinc is quite common in certain populations.
Research shows that 14-15% of all preschool children suffer from iron deficiency anemia.
The full genetic potential of the child for physical growth and mental development may be compromised due to subclinical deficiency of micronutrients. Children with subclinical deficiency of micronutrients are more vulnerable to develop frequent and more severe common day-to-day infections thus triggering a vicious cycle of under-nutrition and recurrent infections. A number of vitamins (vitamins A, E, C, D, B2, B6, folic acid etc) and trace minerals (iron, zinc, selenium, copper) are required for optimum growth and tissue repair. Calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, C, D and K are required to maintain the integrity and mineralisation of bones.
The recommendation for daily intake of calcium in school-going children has increased, but the actual consumption of milk (Primary source of calcium) by children has decreased. Poor calcium intake is related to poor development of teeth and bones. In teen-age years, it is recommended that both boys and girls consume at least 1300 mg of calcium everyday to ensure adequate bone deposits. Bones naturally start thinning out later in life, and to prevent osteoporosis later in life, this bone deposition is crucial. Time is a crucial factor, because this strengthening of the bones cannot be achieved later in life.
Inadequate intake of nutrients in the form of fruits and vegetables may put the child at a future risk of certain types of cancer and cardio-vascular disease.
Approximately 8% of preschool children are obese, and 1/3rd of all higher school children fall in this category too. Increasingly obese and overweight children are experiencing the health problems previously considered adult, ie. diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and cardio-vascular disease. Obesity can also be co existent with malnutrition, and can compound the risk of health issues related with malnutrition.
As in adults, children’s calorie needs are determined by their age, growth spurts, physical activity etc. Children have an innate ability to determine theses needs, but are tremendously influenced by peers, family eating habits, social and cultural backgrounds and inputs from the media. Besides this, children are very inquisitive, and love to imitate adults. For eg. If a parent is having a cup of coffee, the child will ask to have a sip, and then pretend to like it even if he doesn’t. Parents are role models for toddlers and pre-schoolers, and they should lead by example. Tastes learnt in these early years are remembered and appreciated all through life.
In addition to balanced nutrition, regular Physical Activity is required for the all round development of the child. It is estimated that an average pre-schooler spends 24 hrs per week watching television. That is a whole day in each week!!! The recommended level of physical activity is 60 min of moderate activity 5 days a week for children and 30 min of moderate activity 5 days a week for adults. Parents, teachers, and adults associated with children can set an example here too, by encouraging children to remain active, involving them in cultural activities related to sports and fitness.