The relationship between nutrition, health and learning is undeniably strong. Nutrition is one of the top three factors affecting child development. Genes and environment are two other factors. A healthy diet stabilizes a child’s energy, keeps bones strong, supports mental health, promotes a healthy weight and prevents chronic disease. Research studies show that early nutrition in children is linked to later health and academic performance. Much research has shown that good nutrition during the pre-school years is critical to healthy development and learning. However, one in four children in South Africa is stunted. Malnutrition impairs a child’s physical growth, cognitive development and learning ability. Children who do not get enough food can only survive and cannot grow, play or learn easily.
Eating a well-balanced diet containing optimal amounts of energy, and a balance of key nutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, will maximize their growth potential. Conversely, poor nutrition can lead to stunted growth or even permanent stunting in children. Below is the list of nutrients for child growth and development:
Protein helps a child’s body build cells, break down food into energy, fight infection, and carry oxygen. Children between the ages of 4 and 9 need about 19 grams (g) of protein daily. Those ages 9 to 13 need 34 g each day. Examples of foods that contain high levels of protein include meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans and dairy products.
Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy. They help a child’s body use fat and protein for building and repairing tissue. Children over the age of 1 consume about 130 g of carbohydrates each day. That’s usually pretty easy because carbohydrates come in several different forms, like sugars, starches, and fibre. Examples of foods that contain high levels of carbohydrates include bread, rice, pasta, oatmeal, potatoes and cereal.
- Healthy Fats
A great source of energy for kids, fats are easily stored in the body, and they allow for proper usage of other important nutrients. The total fat intake is between 30 to 35% of calories for children 2 to 3 years of age and between 25 to 35% of calories for children and adolescents 4 to 18 years of age, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Examples of foods that contain high levels of healthy fats include cooking oils, meat, fish and nut.
Calcium is essential for building a child’s healthy bones and teeth. It’s also important for blood clotting and nerve, muscle, and heart function. Children ages 1 to 3 get 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, while those over 4 years old should strive for 1,300 mg daily. Examples of foods that contain calcium include: milk, cheeses, and yogurt.
Iron is necessary to build healthy blood that carries oxygen to cells all over the body. It’s also vital for growth and development, immune function, reproduction, and wound healing. Additionally, having sufficient iron stores reduces the risk of anaemia. Kids ages 1 to 3 should get about 7 mg of iron daily, while older kids and adults should get 18 mg. Adolescent girls who have started menstruating may want to pay closer attention to iron intake. Examples of foods that contain high levels of iron include red meats, spinach, beans, whole grains and nuts.
- Vitamin A
Vitamin A serves a variety of purposes in kids and adults. It promotes growth, assists the eyes in adjusting to dim and bright lights, keeps skin healthy, works to prevent infection, and more. Examples of foods that contain high levels of vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, fish oils, eggs and milk.
- Vitamin C
Vitamin C does more than just fight off the common cold. It also holds the body’s cells together, strengthens the walls of blood vessels, heals wounds, and promotes strong bones and teeth. From ages 4 to 8, kids need about 25 mg of vitamin C daily; that’s approximately the amount in half of a small orange. From ages 9 to 13, the recommended daily intake increases to 45 mg, and by the teen years, your child will need to consume between 65 and 75 mg of Vitamin C daily. Examples of foods that contain high levels of vitamin C include: citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Vitamin D
Not only does vitamin D assist with calcium absorption, but it also builds strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D is necessary for many body processes, such as blood pressure regulation, hormone production, and immune and nervous system function. From ages 1 to 3, kids should get about 15 mcg of vitamin D each day. People need about 20 mcg daily after that. Examples of foods that contain vitamin D include fish and fish oil, mushrooms and pork.
AFFT have programmes such as the School Feeding Programme and Early Childhood Development Programme that consist of a varied weekly menu, ensuring that the children receive the nutrients they need and that they develop healthy eating habits. This includes two meals and two snacks every school day, providing them with a variety of food to their school including sandwiches, eggs, nutritious snack bars and fresh fruit weekly, ensuring every child is receiving the necessary nutrition to help them grow strong and concentrate in school.