It’s that sinking feeling all parents can relate to – your child starts to spike a fever and you know what you’re in for; not only is it worrying and awful to see your child unwell, it can also mean sleepless nights, and the juggle of having to miss days of work, day care and school...
It’s a huge stress all round! But Winter shouldn’t be a never-ending family merry go round of infections and viruses. By giving our immune system the nutrients it needs to function well, it is possible to maintain good health through the winter months.
“A” is for Immunity!
We all know about Vitamin C and it’s immune-supporting properties, but did you know that Vitamin A is just as crucial for optimal immune functioning? We find “preformed” Vitamin A in foods like liver, egg yolk, mackerel, and cod liver oil, and we only need a little of the animal-derived Vitamin A for it to be effective. Try throwing a couple of finely chopped chicken livers into your weekly bolognaise sauce or mix a smear of pate into the kids avocado toast. Including pastured eggs in your child’s diet is fantastic on so many levels – they are a terrific source of all our fat-soluble vitamins; choline, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, and they are a great source of protein, too. (They’re also delicious!) We also find a plant-based pro-Vitamin A in all our fruits and veggies with orange and red pigments (& some of the leafy greens). Our liver converts this pro-Vitamin A into our usable form, and the conversion rate is very slow, but lightly cooking our veggies actually increases our absorption rate. (Except in the case of carrots – so eat these ones raw!)
Nutritionist tip: buy organic livers as they’ll be more nutrient-dense!
Ensure Your Child Is eating Enough Protein
Our immune system cannot function without protein, point-blank. Ideally, we should be eating a little bit of it at each meal. (As an added bonus, eating protein at every meal will also help to keep your child feeling full, and will stabilise their blood sugars which will support better moods.) Where do we find protein? Chicken, meat, eggs, fish, some dairy products, tofu, quinoa, and nuts and seeds. I find most children eat some protein at dinner but are usually lacking the rest of the day. Try serving scrambled eggs for breakfast, or my green pikelets which give you a hit of green vegetables and lots of protein (you’ll find the recipe on my Instagram). Adding nuts and seeds to the kids morning porridge is a great way to boost an otherwise low-protein breakfast and try giving them a frittata muffin for morning tea. (Make a double batch and freeze them for easy lunchbox packing!) Throwing a leftover sausage or a boiled egg into their lunchbox next to some veggie sticks and a sandwich is terrific, and most kids love some leftover tuna or bolognese pasta in a thermos for lunch on a cold day.
Tip: If you’re vegetarian, you’ll need to look into “combining proteins” to ensure you’re eating a complete set of amino acids (which make up our proteins) by combining foods, such as beans and rice.
Look After your Child’s Gut
Everyone bangs on about gut health right now, don’t they? But it’s with good reason. It’s estimated that 70% of our immune response actually resides in our gut, so if we want optimal health, we’re going to need to look after it. Do you know the best way to support our gut health? Eating prebiotics. Prebiotics is basically a type of fibre that feed our “good” gut bacteria, and we find them in lots of different fruits and vegetables. Onions are a particularly good source, as are leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke and green bananas (which you can find in the supermarket now as a flour – so super easy to add to baked goods to up the nutrient value!). Basically, the goal is to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and lots of them! Another beneficial (& simple!) thing to do is to eat cooked and cooled “starchy” foods (pasta, rice, potatoes, etc) – once a starch is cooked and cooled, it becomes a fantastic substance called resistance starch – which is also great for gut health. Once it’s been cooled, you can re-heat it without affecting the resistant starch, so you can re-heat leftovers knowing they’re doing you good! (I like to cook more rice than what we need and eat the leftover the following night. It saves on cooking, which is always a bonus, plus it’s great food for our gut!) One of the worst things we can do for our gut health is to eat a lot of sugar and refined foods. I see lots of kids in clinic presenting with “stomach issues” – often they have a parasite, recurrent pinworm infections, and ongoing tummy pains. The diet they’ve been eating is typically high in your standard supermarket processed snacks, and low in essential types of fibre, which basically creates a gut environment which is favourable to pathogenic bugs.
It just wouldn’t be right to talk about immune support without mentioning Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an important nutrient for the immune system and it has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold by 23%. We find Vitamin C in all our fresh fruits and vegetables, so include plenty of them daily in your child’s diet. (It’s recommended that children aged between 4 and 8 eat 4½ serves of vegetables and 1½ serves of fruit each day.) But here’s a fun fact: did you know that kiwi fruits are actually higher in Vitamin C than oranges?
It’s true What they Say About Chicken Soup
Traditionally, chicken soup is made by boiling chicken bones, and bone broth does have lots of nourishing qualities. When cooked with vegetables, a traditional chicken soup is fantastically nourishing – containing protein, fats, and vitamins and minerals. Being high in glutamine and collagen, bone broth also supports the health of our gut lining, which is another key element of a healthy functioning immune system. If your child doesn’t fancy soup, try cooking the food they do like (rice or noodles work well) in broth to make sure they’re getting some in.
Skip the Sugar
Sugar is really detrimental to our immune response in two main ways. Firstly, it disrupts our optimal microbiome (it actually feeds the “bad” bugs in our gut, which can lead to an imbalanced microbiome state and therefore a lowered immunity) and secondly, it actually suppresses the function of our immune cells for a few hours port-eating it. Instead of sugar, opt for wholefood treats instead – bliss balls made with dates, tahini and coconut are a great alternative to a refined sugar treat, or simply have a piece of fruit! (Personally, I’m a big fan of some carrot sticks with peanut butter for morning tea.) I think one of the main ideas that is confusing to parents, is that there is just about no biochemical difference in our bodies response to eating some refined sugar (like, some biscuits or a lolly) to eating some refined grains (like a highly processed but non-sweet packet of grain chips). So, ditch the processed packaged snacks – whether they’re sweet or not – and aim to fill up on wholefoods. A snack does not need to be a wasted opportunity for nutrition!
Support the Sleep
Not technically a food, but so vital to our immune health I’d be crazy not to add it in. Sufficient sleep is absolutely critical! Sleep, and our circadian rhythm are strong regulators of our immunological processes, and chronic sleep loss is associated with increased inflammation, and immunodeficiency. It’s recommended that children aged 5 to 13 years get between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night, and it’s estimated that between 10 and 20% of children of this age are not meeting these sleep requirements. There a few things you can do to help; aim to have a consistent sleep and waking time (even on the weekends!), and turn off screens in the early evening (critical!). I find eating dinner as early as possible helps to keep the sleep routine running on track, too. If your child is experiencing ongoing difficulties with sleep, either falling asleep or staying asleep, try some simple investigations – could they be iron deficient? Are they doing enough to physically and mentally exhaust themselves during the day? Are they lacking in magnesium, or melatonin?