The health of children is so important to their growth and development. Their bodies are still growing, their bones are strengthening and their brains are developing. Each day they experience and learn something new. Their diets and lifestyles have a huge impact on their health going forward, and lacking in essential nutrients can have huge negative consequences on their physical and mental health.
Children’s health in the UK
In 2017, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) published a report into the health of children in the UK. This report highlighted a number of concerns about the current health of children, and the government’s role in this.1 One of the most striking revelations of this report was that the health of children in the UK was much worse than in other countries in Europe. The infant mortality rate is the fifth highest in Europe, and in the most impoverished areas of England, 40% of children are overweight or obese.2
The weight of a person at the end of primary school, when they are 10 or 11 years old, is indicative of their health later in life. In England there was an increase in the number of obese children in 2015/2016.3 This can have a negative effect on their health, weight and overall well being going forward.
Children rely on adults for their food, however, it can be difficult for people to provide children with the healthy foods they need. Taking into consideration that 40% of children in the most deprived areas are overweight or obese, it seems apparent that the cost of healthy food is a huge contributing factor. In 2012, a study was published that tracked the price of a number of key food and drinks in the supermarkets. This study found that 1000 kcal of healthy food cost £7.49, compared to £2.50 for 1000 kcal of less healthy foods.4
The situation hasn’t improved in the past 5 years, with one in four low-income households struggling to eat regularly or healthily.5 While much of the inability to eat healthily can be linked to the ever-increasing cost of healthy foods, in other cases, parents are simply unaware of the dangers of unhealthy eating and nutrition.6
Considering the increasing sedentary society we live in, the high-calorie, high-sugar content of cheap foods can only compound the rising problem of obesity. Children are becoming less active than their previous generations, spending more time watching TV and online than before. In one study, children who lived in homes with 3 or more televisions were more at risk of becoming obese than their peers. Similarly, the study found that obese children actually consumed less calories than children of the same age with a healthy weight. So while food and diet have a huge influence on the weight of a child, lifestyle has a lot to answer for.7
With the instability of weather in the UK, it is not always feasible for children to spend hours outside running around. However, there are games that can be played that involve physical activity within the home. Things such as helping to clean the house are also ways to increase the amount of time your child spends away from a screen.
UK Vitamin & Mineral Recommendations
Below are a few of the UK recommendations that children should be reaching. Children ages 6 months - 4 years are recommended to take vitamins A, C and D in the form of vitamin drops.
Long known for its ability to boost your immune system and aid iron asorption Vitamin C is essential for overall health. It is also necessary for healing and protein metabolism.8 But, it is water soluble, so our bodies don’t store excess supplies. Not only that, but our bodies are unable to produce it, so we need to get it through our diet.9 The RNI for children is as follows:
1-3 years: 30 mg
4-10 years: 30 mg
11-14 years: 35 mg
15-18 years: 40 mg
Vitamin C is found in a number of fruits and vegetables, particularly citrus fruits (oranges, lemons) and tomatoes. Vitamin C deficiency can cause bone disease in children, along with other problems such as poor immune systems.10
This is another vitamin essential for immune function. However, it is hugely important for vision and communication between cells, along with cell growth. As such, it supports cell growth, and is critical in the normal formation and maintenance of heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs.11 Therefore, it is critical that children get adequate amounts of Vitamin A, the RNIs for children are:
1-6 years: 400 mcg
7-10years: 500 mcg
10-14 years: 600 mcg
Females 15-18 years: 600mg
Males 15-18 years: 700mg
Liver and fish oils contain the highest levels of concentrated vitamin A. Milk, eggs and dark leafy green vegetables are also high in Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the top causes of preventable blindness in children, and can also result in night blindness.12
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, which are hugely important for reducing inflammation. Heart disease is generally caused by inflammation, so reducing it can have a huge affect on your health. Studies have also shown that omega-3s have an impact on cognitive development, and growth.13 The RDA for children is:
7-24 months: 100mg DHA fatty acids
2-18 years: 250mg EPA + DHA fatty acids14
Low levels of Omega-3s could have negative consequences for children, slowing their growth and development. Found in fish oils, it can be difficult to convince your child to take it.
This vitamin is crucial for strong bones and assisting with the absorption of calcium. It also helps to boost the immune system.14 Our bodies absorb Vitamin D through exposure to UV rays, but in the UK there is an increased chance of a Vitamin D deficiency, as the RDA for children is:
Breastfed babies, birth - 1 year: 8.5-10mcg vitamin D supplement
Formula Fed babies: No supplement, until they consume less than 500ml formula a day
1-18 years: Daily supplement of 10mcg
Found in fatty fish like tuna, salmon and mackerel and in cheese, and a lack of vitamin D could lead to brittle bones.15
One study has found that children with low levels of Vitamin B12 struggled with tasks, recognition and empathy.16 Children who are deficient in Vitamin B12 can have memory deficits, learning problems and fatigue.17 It’s important that children get the following amounts of B12 daily:
1-3 years: 0.5 mcg
4-6 years: 0.8 mcg
7-10 years: 1 mcg18
11-14 years: 1.2mcg
15-18 years: 1.5 mcg
B12 can be found in dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and shellfish. When children don’t get enough B12, they can develop health issues ranging from anaemia, fragile muscles and stalled growth.19
Calcium is another essential mineral, that’s necessary for building bones and keeping them healthy. Every day, we lose calcium through sweat, hair, skin and nails but our bodies cannot produce new calcium to replenish it.20 Calcium works with Vitamin D3 as D3 helps with calcium absorption and can improve bone health.21 Children should get the following amounts of Calcium daily:
1-3 years: 350 mg
4-6 years: 450 mg
7-10 years: 550 mg
Females 11-18 years: 800mg
Males 11-18 years: 1000mg
Without calcium and vitamin D, the children can face brittle bones and other developmental issues. Foods rich in Calcium are dairy, sardines, orange juice and baked beans.22
Iron is hugely important for health, as it produces haemoglobin, which carries oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our bodies.23 Given this role of iron, children need it for proper growth and development and without it, their development can be slowed. Children need the following amounts of iron:
1-3 years: 6.9mg
4-6 years: 6.1 mg
7-10 years: 8.7 mg24
Males 11-18 years: 11.3mg
Females 11-18 years: 14.8mg
Found in meat, dried beans and fruits and leafy dark green vegetables it is possible to prevent iron deficiency in children.25
Most essential vitamins and minerals can be consumed through a healthy, balanced diet. However, some children don’t like to eat certain foods, and can show a prevalence for foods that are less nutritious. If this is the case, supplements could be worth introducing into your child’s daily routine. Children are growing and developing at a rapid rate, so without adequate nutrients, they could suffer from a huge range of developmental and health issues.
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9 Li Y, Schellhorn HE. New developments and novel therapeutic perspectives for vitamin C. J Nutr 2007;137:2171-84.
10 Weinstein M, Babyn P, Zlotkin S. An orange a day keeps the doctor away: scurvy in the year 2000. Pediatrics 2001;108:E55.
11 Ross CA. Vitamin A. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:778-91.