School districts everywhere are starting to make decisions on whether or not your children will attend in-person school in the Fall or have more time with virtual learning. Regardless of the outcome in your area, there will be students who return to school. Here’s how to make sure you have their nutrition in check before they step foot in the classroom and why it’s important.
Why Does Nutrition Matter?
The simple answer is — to keep your kids healthy. The CDC has determined that children are not at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. We also know that those with co-morbid conditions (health conditions existing together) are more likely to get sicker and die from COVID-19. So, what does that have to do with your kids?
When someone has a condition that makes them more susceptible to infection, they usually have some things going on in their body that healthy people don’t have. Most notably, inflammation and nutrient deficiencies. You don’t find a lot of chronic inflammation in kids and hopefully not nutrient deficiencies.
A recent article published in Nature Reviews Rheumatology in June 2020 has this to say about COVID-19, “COVID-19 is characterized by an excessive or uncontrolled host immune response, elicited by alveolar epithelial cell damage and T cell activation in the lungs that triggers exaggerated local production of pro-inflammatory effector cytokines and leads to the attraction of large numbers of neutrophils and macrophages to the lungs.” — English translation = COVID-19 destroys the lungs by inducing massive inflammation. In other words, if you already have inflammation in your body from obesity, diabetes, or illness, this is bad for you.
Still, what does this have to do with kids? Even though kids aren’t at high risk, they need to be protected, on the inside (food, getting enough sleep, keeping stress levels low) and the outside (masks, handwashing, social distacing). I’ve got you on nutrition.
When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, the speculation began about which nutrients were deficient in those who were getting really sick. Vitamin D is most often one of the nutrients we turn to first. One reason is because a lot of people are deficient in vitamin D.
Vitamin D should be a nutrient your kids get daily. After all, it works with calcium to strengthen bones and teeth. So, work on it.
Doctors at Yale Medical School say there may be a connection, but studies on this are mostly anecdotal and the data doesn’t prove it yet. The funny thing about nutrition science? Nothing is ever proven. Pretty much every study done on nutrition ends with “more studies need to be done to confirm this.” It’s seriously annoying.
According to April 2020 research published in Nutrients, Vitamin D enhances immunity in many ways, making an individual less susceptible to infection in the first place. It also enhances gene expression with antioxidation — again in English, it helps the body increase its own production of antioxidants, most notably, according to the authors, glutathione.
Now, don’t go giving your kids mega-doses of vitamin D, that would be ridiculously irresponsible and you definitely wouldn’t be keeping them healthy. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means you store it in the body, so if you get too much from supplements, your body doesn’t have a way to get rid of it. Stick with getting the RDA for kids of 600IU/day.
Dietary sources of vitamin D
- fortified cereals, milk, and orange juice
- fatty fish
- specially labeled mushrooms
- egg yolks
This nutrient is not commonly deficient in kids, or adults for that matter, but the foods that contain vitamin C, may be lacking in the diet. Bottom line up front — vitamin C is essential for a healthy immune system.
Vitamin C has been studied for years as a treatment for cancer and now for COVID-19, but those are high doses, given intravenously, which you will not give your child. So, how does this science translate to your child? Vitamin C is an antioxidant. When kids are sick with any infection, it can use up the body’s resources of antioxidants, pretty quickly, according the Linus Pauling Institute.
If you don’t constantly replenish that vitamin C, that could put your child at a higher risk for infection.
Foods high in vitamin C also have nutrients that can’t be bottled up and sold. They are called phytonutrients and help keep the immune system in good working order and work hard to keep your cells healthy.
Dietary sources of Vitamin C
- bell peppers
- citrus fruits
You may have heard that your immunity starts in your gut. Very, very true. The bacteria in your gut have a huge influence on whether or not you have a strong immune system.
The diversity of bacteria in your gut is always changing. It changes with diet, illness, and stress to name a few. That diversity is what defines a healthy gut. We know that gut diversity decreases as we age, so this may be a cause for the increase in illness and deaths in the elderly population, according to May 2020 research published in Virus Research.
There is a link between getting enough fiber and having a healthy and diverse gut, so eating foods high in fiber are the first step in improving gut health. So, here are your foods that are the best sources of fiber:
- whole grains
The rule is 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories, so most growing kids need at least 25 grams of fiber and teenage boys need more like 38 grams every day. If your child isn’t eating a lot of high fiber foods currently, start incorporating them into the diet slowly. Large increases in fiber can cause some tummy aches and undesirable side effects…aka: embarrassing side effects.
Here’s what 25 grams of fiber/day looks like
- One serving whole grain breakfast cereal: 6 grams
- 1 cup raspberries: 8 grams
- 1/2 cup roasted chickpeas: 6 grams
- 1 small baked potato with skin: 3 grams
- 1 cup broccoli: 2 grams
Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate, which means you don’t absorb it or digest it. It doesn’t just fill you up and help keep you regular, some of that fiber also stops for a while to ferment in your gut and that also aids in diversifying gut bacteria.
Eating foods that are probiotics (introducing bacteria to your gut), and prebiotics (feeding the bacteria) are also beneficial to keeping your gut healthy.
Prebiotics and probiotics have both been shown to increase gut diversity and therefore, improve the immune response. That right there is precisely why high fiber foods are essential for a healthy immune system
So, where do you get all these superpower gut friendly foods? Plants, of course. Here are some good choices for prebiotics:
- onions, garlic, and leeks
- whole grains
Probiotics are foods that have bacteria in them and are fermented. Here are some good probiotic choices:
- yogurt with live cultures and kefir
Keeping your kid healthy isn’t rocket science, but as with all parenting challenges, getting them to eat the right kinds of foods can be tough, especially if you have picky eaters.
My advice is to start slow, you have time. Slowly add small amounts of vitamin D foods, vitamin C foods, and fiber-rich foods in their diet and after a few weeks, they won’t even know they were making themselves healthier and ready to fight off infection like a champ.
If you choose to give your child a multi-vitamin, do a quick mental check and see if they actually need one everyday. If their diet is healthy, with a wide variety of foods, they probably don’t need one daily. A multi-vitamin is a little like an insurance policy – even if your kids ate junk for an entire day, they are still going to be okay…they will still grow.
When choosing vitamins, make sure you are looking for some key nutrients. They will all have vitamin C, so that’s not a problem. Look for vitamin D, calcium, and iron at a minimum. If they don’t have those 3, walk away.
No matter if your kids are in school or at home, keeping their immune system working at a high level is essential.