Amid all the uncertainty about diets and what to eat, new parents could be forgiven for not quite knowing what to feed their young children. In the process, they may well be reaching for the most convenient options — but they could be doing more harm than good.
A 2019 UAE study of 1,000 infants and toddlers found that 10 per cent of infants under six months are already being fed an unhealthy diet such as French fries, cakes and sweetened beverages. From the ages of 5-12 months, children in the survey were fed complementary foods such as cow’s milk, rice, vegetables and chicken, while nearly 20 per cent were also fed biscuits. The study, conducted by a team from UAE University, Latifa Hospital and Al Ain Hospital, was the first of its kind in the country.
Make snack time healthy with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to help your child get all the nutrients he needs.
By contrast, the World Health Organisation recommends that children under the age of six months should be purely breastfed.
“Children in the UAE have a lot of fast foods that are easily available to them, along with sweetened carbonated beverages,” says Mehfuza Haffiz, Senior Clinical Dietitian at the Dubai Health Authority. “These are the worst sort of foods for children. Their availability in super-sized portions, combined with low rates of physical activity, sees UAE children beginning to pile on unnecessary calories — leading them to be overweight, and setting them on an unending cycle of weight issues for the rest of their lives.”
Parents should look at the Healthy Plate schematic, available at Choosemyplate.gov. Typically, half the plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables, while a quarter should be protein such as meat and beans, and a quarter comprised of whole grains. A side serving of dairy is also recommended. “This plate gives the kids the flexibility of following their taste buds as well as teaches them about healthy options,” she says.
Overall, says Dr Yasser Nakhlawi, Director of Clinical Affairs and Consultant Paediatrics and Neonatal at Al Zahra Hospital Dubai, cut out fast food, sodas and excessive sweets entirely, and avoid simple sugars and fried foods.
“Healthy eating is about having a varied, balanced diet and enjoying lots of different foods. Focus on vegetables, fruits and healthy snacks, as well as good sources of protein such as fish, poultry and lean meat. High-fibre diets are important,” he says. Remember not to force children to eat if they aren’t hungry, he adds. “Children can decide how much food they need, so don’t make them eat until their plates are empty.”
Dietary recommendations by age group follow below, offering a holistic idea of how parents should be feeding their children to optimise their growth and development over the years.
Up to 6 months
Breast milk offers the best nutritional start, Haffiz says. “For the first six months of your baby’s life, breast milk is the best as it is tailor-made to their needs.” If it isn’t always possible to provide breast milk, children can be started on what the WHO calls complementary foods after the age of four months. Dr Nakhlawi recommends vegetables and fruits, as well as rice.
These 18 months are when babies are growing and developing at a faster rate than at any other point in their lives. During the first two years, up to 75 per cent of each meal goes to building your baby’s brain. Although breast milk must remain the primary source of nutrition at this point, now is the time to introduce in tiny amount a range of different foods every day, such as mashed fruits and vegetables, and whole grains in the form of thick porridge, and animal protein, including dairy, eggs, fish, meat and poultry. “Variation is important,” Haffiz says.
Toddlers and preschoolers (up to age 6)
“This is an important period and patience is the key,” Haffiz says. “It takes time to develop healthy eating habits in children and this is the right time to start.” In addition to three meals, a growing pre-schooler needs one or two healthy snacks every day. “Make snack time healthy with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to help your child get all the nutrients he needs,” she says.
Age 6 to 12
With their high levels of energy, school children need a wide range of healthy foods and wholesome snacks to fuel their activity. They may eat up to five times a day, including snacks, but remember that they may also be eating at school. Build meals around the Healthy Plate plan, and keep introducing new and different foods. School-age children are open and inquisitive, and they are often willing to eat a wider variety of foods than their younger siblings.
Haffiz also flags up the need to stay with a healthy diet as children advance towards puberty. “Studies show a positive relationship between food and early onset of puberty,” she says. “The consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks is also positively associated with the risk of earlier puberty. So plan a healthy diet for this age group.”
With growth spurts accompanied by hormonal changes, adolescents often experience a surge in appetite, so cater to these needs with healthy (and sneaky, if necessary) alternatives to junk food. “You need to avoid junk food, high sugar, and focus on healthy high proteins and complex carbohydrates,” Dr Nakhlawi says.
If your children are overweight and must go on a diet, consult a medical professional first. “Any diet must be undertaken under medical supervision with proper investigations and regular check-ups by a physician or a nutritionist for very specific reasons to ensure proper nutrition needed for their fast growth,” he says.
“In general, physical activity is usually encouraged, along with limiting screen time such as smartphones and tablets, so children and teenagers have more time for exercise and physical activity.”