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How Nutrition Impacts Early Childhood Development

In early childhood development, good nutrition is vital to growth. Gain a better understanding of nutrition and its role in early childhood development, learn the differences between healthy and poor eating habits, and understand the caregiver's role in promoting good nutrition.

Defining Nutrition

Eat your vegetables! Most of us grew up hearing our parents utter these three little words while staring down at something on our dinner plates that didn't look all that appealing. Once adults, however, we came to understand the importance of good nutrition and the role it plays in keeping us healthy.

In a nutshell, nutrition consists of the foods and drinks that provide the fuel our bodies need to function. The nutritional value of the foods and beverages we consume is dependent upon what types of substances we consume. For example, someone whose diet consists primarily of fast food meals and carbonated sodas is not eating nutritiously. By comparison, someone who eats a well-balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables is most likely eating nutritiously.

Nutrition in Early Childhood

Although eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet is important throughout the course of our lives, it's especially critical in early childhood. On average, preschoolers between the ages of 2 and 5 grow between 15 - 20 centimetres and gain between 5 - 6 kilograms. Significant brain development occurs as well.

Instilling healthy eating habits and providing good nutritional choices is extremely important to ensure normal development in a number of areas, including:

  • Cognitive development, or the development of the brain. This includes the ability of children to develop language skills and short and long-term memory, and make connections.

  • Physical development refers to the actual physical growth of a child, including his/her height and weight.

  • Emotional and social development, or the ability of children to form relationships with others and mature.

Let's take a look at how nutritional choices can influence early childhood development:

Brain Development

There is a direct relationship between the foods we choose to eat and our brain function. Memory, brain plasticity and flexibility, and logical thinking are just a few main areas influenced by the nutrition we build. Proper and healthy food can benefit the brain in several positive ways. In the early years of life, cognitive activity is intense; therefore, healthy eating habits should be formed early and maintained throughout life.

To ensure that children's overall well-being is high, that they have optimal energy levels and that they are training their memory and logical thinking, we need to help them create healthy nutrition routines.

A diet with a varied range of foods helps maintain a balanced mix of brain messengers. Like the other organs in our body, the brain also benefits from a steady supply of micronutrients. Antioxidants in fruit and vegetables keep the brain healthy and help it to function in normal parameters for longer.

Some great food choices to consider are:

  • Protein. Choose seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.

  • Fruits. Encourage your child to eat a variety of fresh, canned, frozen or dried fruits. Look for canned fruit that says it's light or packed in its own juice. This means it's low in added sugar. Remember that 1/4 cup of dried fruit counts as one serving of fruit.

  • Vegetables. Serve a variety of fresh, canned, frozen or dried vegetables. Choose peas or beans, along with colourful vegetables each week. When selecting canned or frozen vegetables, look for ones that are lower in sodium.

  • Grains. Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread or pasta, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, or brown or wild rice.

  • Dairy. Encourage your child to eat and drink fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. Fortified soy beverages also count as dairy.

Emotional Health

There is a misconception that nutrition level will not affect emotional health.

When it comes to our natural food intake, many have no idea what we are supposed to eat to regulate our emotions. Yet, nutrients such as vitamin B6, folate, and choline are critical in synthesizing neurotransmitters, brain chemical, which regulate one’s memory and mood. Consequently, deficiency of these nutrients is associated with mood-related emotions like depression and anxiety.

Therefore, an increase in nutrient-rich food such as fish and legumes and a decrease in junk food consumption during a child’s development have a significant impact on their well-being and mood. Parents should also ensure their food intake consists of omega-3 fatty acids which help in decreasing stress and mood disorders.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Foods:

  • Salmon

  • Sardines

  • Pacific Chub Mackerel

  • Canned light tuna

  • Freshwater Trout

  • Herring

  • Oysters

  • Shrimp

  • Beef

  • Flaxseeds

  • Walnuts

  • Chia seeds

Physical Health

Healthy eating patterns with adequate nutrition are a good way to prevent malnutrition. Malnutrition includes undernutrition or overnutrition, both of which play an important role in a child’s development with life-long effects.

During childhood, undernutrition can cause kids to have lesser energy and interest during learning, which negatively affects their cognitive development and academic performance. It also affects physical growth, maturation, body height and weight.

Apart from that, obesity, a form of malnutrition, which is also known as overnutrition, is possible to have low nutrient density along with high levels of fat and carbohydrate. Thus, malnutrition affects their competence and confidence during physical activity, showing how it can further deteriorate established growth and development in kids.

Behavioural Development

Proper nutrition helps to develop well behavioural development in children.

However, it is unfortunate that many parents do not realise what their kids eat daily could impact their behaviour. Although adjusting a kid’s diet might seem like an intimidating task at first, many parents will feel relieved when their child has positive changes in their behaviour according to well-balanced nutrition.

Moreover, social behaviours have been proven to be more susceptible to the consequences of poor nutrition. This is evident in children who had poor diets during the critical period from birth to two years old in how they appeared to be less active and withdrawn compared to their peers.

So, what's the takeaway?

Parents are key individuals to their children's healthy growth and development. We cannot expect our children to eat healthy on their own accord, and this responsibility lies in parents.

Parents must learn and know about healthy eating to help their children to grow with a well-balanced diet.

So, do train your kids well with all the nutrients they need from young a young age. And of course, kids observe and imitate their parents' actions; hence, remember to always be a good role model with the type of food you consume in front of them.


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