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Probably the single most important thing you can do for your child’s future health and happiness is to make sure you provide them with the best nutrition. But when you’re in the supermarket, faced with aisle upon aisle of convenience foods and treats, it is difficult to make the right choices, let alone know what those ‘right’ choices are.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll unpack children’s nutrition for you and give you handy tips, advice and information to help you provide your child with the ideal balance of nutrients, to support their growth and development, and help them maximise their potential in school and in life.

Where to start?

Your child should consume the right carbohydrates, fats and proteins – the three major nutrients – or macronutrients – that are used to build and fuel your child, as well as the many vital vitamins and minerals – or micronutrients – that are essential for keeping their bodies running smoothly. However, food also contains anti-nutrients, which are substances such as refined sugar, damaged fats, chemical food additives and toxic minerals that can disrupt the good work of the nutrients, so you should steer your child clear of these.

Easier said than done, yes. Left to their own devices, children will naturally narrow down the range of foods that they like until they eat only three things – one of which will be chips! It can be very frustrating at times but it is worth persevering to counteract this tendency and to broaden the range of foods they consume.

Don’t be scared of all carbs

Although it is possible for us to use protein and fat for energy, carbohydrate is what the human body is designed to run on.

Carbohydrates should make up a quarter to one third of each of your child’s meals but you need to make sure they are complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains, vegetables, beans or lentils or simpler carbohydrates such as fruit. These kinds of carbohydrates gradually release their potential energy and fuel your child at a consistent level for longer. All the nutrients the body needs for digestion and metabolism are present in wholefoods, and they also contain fibre, a less-digestible type of carbohydrate, which helps the digestive system run smoothly.

The carbohydrates you do need to be scared of are all forms of concentrated sugar – white and brown sugar, malt, glucose, honey and syrup, and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and refined cereals. These release sugar into the blood quickly causing a spike in blood sugar levels. This spike is quickly followed by a sudden drop as the body scrambles to balance the blood sugar levels and overshoots leaving your child whiney, irritable and prone to tantrums. Furthermore, if this sugar isn’t required by the body it is stored and eventually turned into fat. Most concentrated forms of sugar and refined carbohydrates are devoid of vitamins and minerals, without which our metabolism becomes inefficient, contributing to low energy levels and mood, and poor weight control.

Finding the balance

Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for your child but the trick is to keep the supply even. Too much and you get a moody child with unbalanced energy levels; too little and your child could experience symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, aggression, anxiety, poor concentration, excessive thirst, depression, crying spells or blurred vision.

So, for your child to be able to think with clarity, behave rationally and have steady energy levels, it is vital that their glucose supply stays steady and even. Seesawing blood sugar levels can also affect children’s IQ in a negative way. To maximise mental performance your child needs to have that all-important even supply of glucose to the brain.

Swap chart

Here are a few examples of what your child should, and should not, be eating to keep their blood sugar levels balanced:

Instead of:                                           Eat:
White toast and jam                            Wholegrain toast and baked beans
Cornflakes                                           Porridge with raspberries
Croissants and baguettes                   Wholegrain rye breads
White rice                                            Wholemeal spaghetti
Chocolate bars                                    Raw vegetable crudité
Bananas                                              Berries, apples or oranges
Crackers or rice cakes                        Oatcakes

The one-time when fast-releasing carbs are ok for your child is when they are about to do, or has just done, some intense exercise. A banana in the half hour before a rugby match, for example, works well, since any excess sugar will be used up quickly for energy.

Top tip:

The more fibre and protein you have with any meal or snack, the slower the release of the carbohydrates. Anything that slows the passage of carbohydrates into the bloodstream is good for your child’s blood sugar balance. Aim to combine protein-rich foods with high-fibre carbohydrates as a rule of thumb. Here are some examples:

  • Give seeds or nuts with any fruit snack
  • Add seeds or nuts to carbohydrate-based breakfast cereals
  • Make sandwiches with unsweetened peanut butter and wholemeal bread

Next week, we’ll look at the power of protein and the best sources for your child.