I woke up this morning to a chill in the air and a deluge of water outside my front door. Winter is undoubtedly making its way to us and with it comes a whole host of cough, cold and flu bugs for families to contend with. So is there anything we can do to help our kids catch fewer coughs and colds this winter, and not get so sick when they do?
I can’t talk about nutritional links without first reminding us all of how these bugs are transmitted. Despite the name “the cold” kids (nor adults) catch the cold by getting cold. The cause is a virus (and there are many) that is spread through infected others coughing and spluttering near us. Most viruses cannot live for long, if at all, on inanimate surfaces, so spraying every surface in the house with chemicals is not the answer. Since we cough into our hands, and kids are likely to be wiping their noses on their hands, frequent hand washing with soap is a major line of defense. I am not a fan of using antibacterial soaps, sprays and potions. These have not been shown to be any more effective than good old-fashioned soap and water. In fact they may be more harmful by eliminating good bacteria around us and why introduce a whole host of chemicals to our kids environments? You can have a clean house without the use of chemicals that are harmful to our kids, our environment and ourselves. But I digress, back to kids immunity.
Good nutrition provides the building blocks of a strong immune system. Kids that eat poorly are far more likely to pick up every bug going around, and when they do get sick they will tend to be sicker for longer than healthier kids. There are of course other reasons why immunity can be affected, but there is no doubt that being well nourished is key to staying healthy. The nutrients the immune system needs is extensive and includes vitamin C, zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin E, calcium, selenium and numerous phytochemicals (plant chemicals). What this means is that there is no one food that can boost immunity, rather a whole host of different nutritious foods are required. That is good news. It means it doesn’t matter if you can’t get your child to eat an orange, if s/he will eat a range of other plant foods. To get you started here are my top 10 immunity boosters for kids:
1. Carrots – one of the richest sources of beta-carotene, an antioxidant in its own right and can also be converted to vitamin A in the body. Try grating or finely chopping them into stews, Bolognese or soups, or serve them raw as batons.
2. Onions, leeks and garlic – from the same family these vegetables contain the antioxidant quercetin which is antibiotic and anti-viral. It is not destroyed by cooking – thank goodness as not many kids I know will crunch on raw onion in a salad. But try making a leek and potato soup, or throw onion and garlic into their pasta sauce.
3. Avocado – although not as high in vitamin E as seeds, what they do contain is far more available since it is not taken up in protecting the polyunsaturated fats in the food. Vitamin E is critical to the anti-viral defense mechanisms of the body.
4. Dark leafy greens – including spinach, watercress and cabbage. OK so you’re thinking there is no chance your child will eat any of these. My kids are just the same and will not touch them if they are served up as salad (although keep persevering – older kids will generally start to like salad). But think outside the square and blitz them up with stock to make “green soup” (yes they’ll rename it but so long as they eat it so what) or finely shred it and add to sauces and stews. Make a paste of wilted greens blended with ricotta cheese, a little grated nutmeg and roll up in lasagna sheets to make cannelloni or make a green sauce for ravioli or gnocchi.
5. Cauliflower – often ignored in favour of its greener cousin broccoli. That’s a shame as most kids I know happily eat cauliflower. Cauliflower contains a group of phytochemicals called glucosinolates, as well as B group vitamins and fibre, all-important for immune function.
6. Beans, chickpeas and lentils – 70% of the immune system is in the gut and so good gut health is at the core of strong immunity. Legumes are rich in soluble fibre and resistant starch, both of which fuel the good bacteria in the gut and in turn boosts immune function. They also provide plant protein and an array of nutrients.
7. Nuts and seeds – these foods are serious nutritional powerhouses. It’s such a shame that with the risk of allergy many kids are not eating them. If your own kids are not allergic then make the most use of these foods outside of school. They provide vitamin E, fibre, healthy fats, magnesium, zinc and healthy fats. I sprinkle home roasted nuts over my kids porridge, give them a ramekin mix of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and dark chocolate pieces for afternoon tea, spread pure nut butter on toast or in sandwiches, and drizzle nut oil over their vegies.
8. Kiwi fruit – berries become so expensive over winter I stop buying them fresh. Kiwi are great at this time of year however and in terms of vitamin C content, they rate only behind guava! I simply half them and serve them to my kids with a spoon.
9. Probiotics – a good body of evidence now shows that children given a good probiotic experience fewer respiratory infections and when they do catch a cold they get over it faster. You can choose from giving them a probiotic supplement drink or supplement or a probiotic yoghurt. What is crucial is that you use a tried and tested bacterial strain – look for the evidence behind the product – and give it to them daily.
10. Turkey leg – most kids love poultry but we tend to rely on chicken. Give turkey a try and go for the brown meat. It provides more iron and zinc than the breast, and provides selenium, B group vits and other immune-boosting nutrients. It’s also cost effective with a couple of turkey legs easily feeding the whole family. Plus the Fred Flintstone connection will get the kids tucking in happily!
Finally don’t forget the importance of making sure your kids get enough sleep. Being run down and tired is the fastest route to a depressed immunity. A well-nourished and well-rested body is the one that can most readily stave off this years winter coughs and colds.
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Good nutrition provides the building blocks of a strong immune system.