Childhood is an important and exciting time of life. It is quite well accepted that it is during childhood that the habits and beliefs that are going to follow us throughout the rest of our lifetime are formed. It is also increasingly being recognised that during childhood is when we lay the nutritional foundation that will dramatically impact our health in later life. Conditions long seen as the result of growing older are now being connected with our nutritional status during this important time of development(Peterson).

So what sort of foundations are Australian children building? and what can be done to improve? Marianne looks at some of the areas that need to be addressed.

Calcium, More Than Just Bones & Teeth!

Most people know that calcium is important for forming strong, healthy bones and teeth, especially for children! However calcium deficiency can lead to a number of other symptoms in the body.

Some sources have suggested that calcium deficiency may be linked with increasingly common childhood conditions such as autism (Kidd) and ADHD. In studies on Autism in particular, supplementation with calcium resulted in many parents saying their children’s symptoms had improved. Calcium is also important in the correct function and release of neurotransmitters in the body important in good nervous system function and overall mood and wellbeing(Kirschmann).

On average Australian year 5 students consume 916mg of Calcium per day(Abbott). The Australian & New Zealand RDI is set at 1000mg per day with the US RDI at a more realistic 1,300 mg per day. Either way, Australian children are falling short of their ideal intake of calcium and it does not get that much better as they get older. Upon reaching grade ten the average calcium intake was only 1,135mg per day.

There are a number of great dietary sources of calcium to alleviate some of the dependence on dairy, particularly in light of the allergic potential of dairy. Good options include green leafy vegetables and fish, particularly salmon. Liberal use of of seeds including sesame and pumpkin are also good sources of calcium.

Vitamin D, the Sunshine Vitamin!

You would think that in Australia, we wouldn’t have to worry too much about our vitamin D levels. Unfortunately however vitamin D deficiency appears to be wide spread through the Australia / New Zealand region (Truswell). Surveys done throughout the region showed that during winter, up to 68% of children had vitamin D levels under the optimal range of 50-150 nmol/L falling into the definition of insufficient. The seasonal nature of this deficiency would indicate that many of us are reliant on vitamin D manufactured by the body in response to sunlight and have insufficient dietary sources of vitamin D.

Vitamin D has attracted a lot of attention in it’s role in the treatment of conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. It is not just important for ageing bones however, but also for the developing body due to its role in growing bones and cartilage(Mervyn)! Ensuring a good musculoskeletal foundation at a young age can prevent or alleviate problems later in life.

There has also been significant research into vitamin D and conditions that affect the nervous system. Most notably, Autism (Humble) and Multiple Sclerosis(Hayes) have a link with vitamin D deficiency in early life.

How can we increase children’s vitamin D levels? In addition to sensible sun exposure cold water fish, egg yolks and butter provide good dietary sources of vitamin D.

Essential Fatty Acids, Not Just For Inflammation

A high dietary intake of essential fatty acids, particularly the omega 3 variety, are absolutely vital for the developing body. Sadly, children’s diets are typically low in the major sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids with less than 10% of children reporting regular inclusion of fish or seafood in their diet and less than 20% regularly consuming nuts and / or seeds(Abbott).

The benefits of Omega 3 EFAs are widely spoken about for reducing the inflammation and pain of rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis, but we don’t see many children with arthritis! There are however many other conditions, more common to children, that EFAs are useful for.

The last four to five years has seen a lot of research into the use of fish oils for the treatment of children with autism and ADHD with promising results. One study using 1,000mg of Omega 3 EFAs daily over 12 weeks saw a 33% improvement in the symptoms of autism(Meiri), while another using 1,500mg over six weeks saw a reduction in hyperactivity of children(Amminger). ADHD and autism are increasingly common amongst children and these studies show that nutritional review needs to form an early part of the treatment and management process. It is worth noting that both of these studies refer to the active Omega 3 EFAs rather than just the amount of fish oil in the capsule. Supermarket variety fish oils are typically very low in the active Omega 3 EFA EPA and DHA.

Another common childhood condition that responds well to Omega 3 EFAs is asthma. A study from Australia showed that dietary modification to increase the proportion of omega 3 EFAs in the diet protected children from the symptoms of asthma(Oddy).

Want to Know More?

Our Naturopath is available to help you with diet and nutrition advice for the whole family. Contact us today on07 3800 1993 or email to book your consultation.

Resources Consulted

  • Abbott RA, Macdonald D, Stubbs CO, Lee AJ, Harper C, Davies PSW. Healthy Kids Queensland Survey 2006 — Full Report. Queensland Health, Brisbane, 2008
  • Amminger, G. P., et al. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with autism: a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study. Biological Psychiatry 61(4):551-553, 2007.
  • Hayes, C. E. Vitamin D: a natural inhibitor of multiple sclerosis. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 59(4):531-535, 2000.
  • Humble, M. B., et al. Low serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25-OHD) among psychiatric out-patients in Sweden: Relations with season, age, ethnic origin and psychiatric diagnosis. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 2010.
  • Kidd, P. M. Autism, an extreme challenge to integrative medicine. Part II: medical management. Alternative Medicine Review. 7(6):472-499, 2002.
  • Meiri, G., et al. Omega 3 fatty acid treatment in autism. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. 19(4):449-451, 2009.
  • Mervyn, L. Thorsons Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals (2nd Edition). Thorsons Publishing Group, Wellingborough, England. 1989:23, 62.
  • Oddy, W. H., et al. Ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids and childhood asthma. Journal of Asthma. 41(3):319-326, 2004.
  • Peterson R et al. “Ecology of Arthritis”. Ecology Letters 2010: doi 10.1111/j.1461-0248.200.01504.x
  • Sahley, B. J. Natural control of ADD and ADHD. Vitamin Research News. 14(10), 2000.
  • Truswell, Stewart. “Vitamin D deficiency in Australia and New Zealand: what are the dietary options?” The Free Library 01 December 2006. 15 September 2010 < D deficiency in Australia and New Zealand: what are the…-a0156366456>.