During their early years, children undergo a crucial period of development where they build the foundations of their immune system.
This formation process occurs through a combination of food, genetics, and environmental factors.
During this time, children are more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections because their immune system is in the process of developing innate and adaptive immunity.
It is vital to support children’s immune development during this period to avoid immunodeficiency and build their resilience against foreign disease and illness.
Innate Immunity and Adaptive Immunity
Our body has two main types of immunity, innate immunity, and adaptive or acquired immunity. Innate immunity is our body’s immediate response to infection.
Adaptive or acquired immunity refers to our body’s memory of previous exposure to disease or illness. It is ‘learned’ immunity that enhances our immune system’s response.
Many lifestyle factors can interfere with the health of our immune system, including nutrition, sleep patterns, exposure to toxins and pollutants, and genetics.
While we are unable to control our environment and genetics, we are in control of the nutritional intake of our children. What our children consume can either support or hinder the healthy development of their immune system.
From a nutrition perspective, it is vital to maintain a healthy diet that fulfills the nutritional requirements of your child.
For a toddler aged 2-4 years, you should aim for one serve of fruit, three servings of vegetables, four servings of grains, one serve of protein, and 1.5 servings of dairy.
A preschooler aged 4-6 should aim for 1.5 servings of fruit, 4.5 servings of vegetables, four servings of grains, 1.5 serves of protein and 1-2 servings of dairy.
For specific advice on your child’s dietary requirements, see Health Direct.
Foods that Support Immunity
It is well-known that Vitamin C can assist in reducing the severity and duration of certain viral infections such as the common cold. Vitamin C can be found in many food sources such as oranges, mangoes, and berries.
Similarly, Zinc can reduce inflammations associated with infections. It is advised to take Zinc as soon as symptoms of an illness appear, such as a runny nose or sore throat. Foods that are naturally high in Zinc include meat, tofu, seeds, lentils, and oats.
Last but not least, a deficiency in Vitamin D is associated with increased susceptibility to infection. To develop a healthy immune system, it is recommended to include salmon, tuna, and fortified cereals in your child’s diet. You should also ensure they get plenty of sunlight!
Foods to Limit
Foods that do not contribute to your child’s nutritional intake, such as those that are high in salt, fat, and sugar, should be limited in your child’s diet.
This includes foods such as potato crisps, pizza, meat pies, soft drinks, lollies, salami, ice cream, and biscuits.
These discretionary foods are okay in small amounts; however, they can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation, which can burden the immune system.
These foods aren’t essential to your child’s diet, and habitual intake can lead to children becoming overweight or developing diseases, such as heart disease, later in life.
Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating Habits
Teaching your child to make healthy eating a habit begins at home. It is best to start early so that your child knows how to make healthy choices as they grow up.
To encourage healthy eating:
- Wash your hands before each meal
- Eat a healthy breakfast every day
- Cook together and involve your children in food preparation
- Make meals times family time without the distraction of any screens
- Encourage your child to try new foods
- Teach your children where their foods come from
- Keep a bowl of fruit or healthy snacks handy
- Ensure food is stored properly
- Don’t keep ‘junk food’ in the house