If your toddler experiences stomach problems or fever frequently, his immune system needs a boost. Good immunity is his best bet when it comes to fighting various diseases. And this is where the right diet plays a crucial role. However, feeding a child is often a Herculean task when his plate is loaded with healthy items like veggies or fruits. No matter how colourful or tasty they are, toddlers (especially fussy eaters) tend to pick deep-fried or sugary goodies over natural foods. However, foods like chips, cakes, and bhujia have very little or zero nutritional value and hardly boost your kid’s immune system. Rather, the high content of salt, sugar or saturated fats in them leads to digestive problems, inflammation and negatively affects the way his body responds to infections. So, read on to know why unhealthy foods are bad for your toddler’s immunity and how you can make his diet nutrient-rich.

First, take a look at how unhealthy foods impact his body

Most parents indulge in sweet treats like pastries, cakes and chocolates now and then, but fail to consider the pros and cons before offering the same to their tiny tots. However, by now, almost everyone is aware of the term “sugar rush” and how excessive sugar can make kids hyperactive. But did you know about its impact on your child’s immune system?

Well, a recent study has shown that a sugary meal adversely impacts the immune system almost instantaneously. It showed that sugars restrict the effectiveness of white blood cells (immune cells) from responding to an infection by about 50% within 1 to 2 hours. In fact, this effect can last for about 5 hours post a sugary meal. So, though your toddler’s immune system needs to be constantly alert, monitoring and looking out for signs of germ invasion or danger, sugar can dampen this response.

It is also important to remember that young children have an underdeveloped immune system. Just like sugar, a high-fat diet, consisting mostly of saturated and trans fats, can cause systemic inflammation, alter the gut flora and compromise immunity.

What kind of diet should you provide your child?

A nutrient-dense diet, free from excess sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, is what your child needs to build immunity. Based on the impact that faulty food habits can have on a child’s immune system, the World Health Organization has provided some recommendations, especially if the child is down with an infection. Some of the recommendations that will help increase the nutrient density of meals are:

  • Include foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes (lentils, beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. millets, oats, wheat, brown rice or starchy tubers or roots such as potatoes), and foods from animal sources (e.g. meat, fish, eggs and milk).
  • Children between 3 and 8 years should be given about 1.5 cups of vegetables per day. Cook with different vegetables to include leafy greens and brightly-coloured red and orange vegetables. Make sure not to overcook vegetables as this can lead to the loss of vitamins and minerals.
  • Fresh fruits are ideal for toddlers, as long as you wash them carefully. Children under the age of 6 should not have more than half a cup of fruit juice. Fruit juice should be made with fresh fruits and no sugar should be added to them.
  • Try and provide your child with home-cooked foods. Fast foods, snacks, fried foods, cookies and spreads contain trans fats that are best avoided
  • Include cereals enriched with essential micronutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin D, Folic Acid which help support immune system functions in your child.

What are the nutrients that need to be a part of a nutrient-dense diet?

Protein, fats, vitamins and minerals are all important for the functioning of the immune system. However, certain vitamins play significant roles as they function as enzymes and activators in the different immune reactions. As a parent, you should ensure that vitamin A, C, B6, D, and folic acid are included in your child’s diet.

Vitamin A and its various metabolites that are formed in the body help fight off infection by increasing white blood cell production and antibody response to bacteria and viruses. They also help in strengthening the mucosal barriers, which physically prevent the entry of infectious agents. Foods such as carrots, papaya, mangoes, tomatoes and seafood have high vitamin A levels.

Vitamin C supports your toddler’s immune response to infection by increasing the action of phagocytes, which swallow and kill pathogens. It is also involved in the formation of collagen, which helps strengthen the epithelial cell membrane of the skin. This forms a physical barrier against infections. Vitamin C requirements can be met by offering your child fresh fruits such as guava, papaya, capsicum, lemons, oranges and green leafy vegetables like radish leaves, drumstick leaves and kale.

Vitamin D’s role in immune function has caught attention because of how it impacts the body in case of a deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of infections and supplementation helps decrease this risk. Exposure to sunlight and offering vitamin D fortified milks can ensure vitamin D adequacy.

Vitamin B6 is important for antibody production, and thus, deficiencies can impact your child’s immune response to an infection. Seafood contains some of the highest amounts of vitamin B6. Smaller amounts are found in oats, peanuts, banana, chicken and milk.

Folic acid is another vitamin that is present in chickpeas, rajma, peas and green leafy vegetables such as cabbage and spinach. Since folic acid plays a fundamental role in DNA and protein synthesis, a deficiency can impact immune cells production, and hamper your child’s response to an infection.

To wrap up, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and low-fat dairy products and foods with added micronutrient should be included in your toddler’s diet to supply him with all the nutrients that play a role in boosting immunity. And limit the intake of fried, salty or sugary foods as much as possible, so that your child’s immune system is always active and can fight infections efficiently.