Every morning when I stepped into my kindergarten pal Nancy's home, her mother would be opening the plastic capsule of a multivitamin tablet and mixing it with her orange juice. Nancy hated milk and would usually kick up a fuss about eating her vegetables. She could live on potatoes. Her mother, a nurse at a local hospital, always feared for her health because of her poor eating habits. I do not know whether that vitamin pill ever did her any good, for Nancy continued to be a sickly child.
What seemed a rarity in those days has become the norm now. Take a look around the food courts. Most children survive on a diet of fried chicken nuggets and cola. Talk to their mothers about food and they will tell you how they force a malted nutritional drink down their child's throat every morning and a calcium pill during the day.
They eat a diet that has either too much starch, or too much sugar and excludes other food groups. This is why mothers today feel if their child has had an energy supplement in their milk or food, it compensates for any deficiencies. But is this so? Are these health supplements really the way to compensate for a child's nutritionally deficient diet?
According to Dr Nisha Soares, a specialist paediatrician at Al Zahra Hospital, Sharjah, "The major problem facing most parents as well as paediatricians today is that children eat less home-cooked food and more processed food, the biggest component of the latter being fast food." Blame it on lifestyle or a lack of time to cook, parents start feeding their children with ‘shortcut foods' like fries, cookies and noodles. These foods may taste good but they are unhealthy options. They encourage children to become picky eaters.
"(Picky eating) is a growing problem among children in the age group of one to four," says Dr Soares. "This is because children today eat less home-made food and in a bid to ensure their child's mental agility or physical health does not get affected, parents turn to health supplements and assume that these will meet their nutritional needs."
Picky and strong
Even as many parents introduce health supplements to their child's diet, they are not really aware of the true impact of their decisions. They do not know if the supplements will do their children any good. What's more they perhaps do not ask of themselves if it is too early for their child to be benefiting from health supplements.
According to Dr Soares, the origins of this problem definitely lie in the formative years of a child and the role parents play during this phase.
"Many parents feel the problem (of picky eating) is unique to their child but I would like them to know that this is a problem faced by parents almost everywhere. What makes these years in a child's life a challenge for parents is that children of this age are both stubborn and strong - stubborn enough to refuse to eat for long periods if denied the foods they want, and strong enough to withstand the hunger pangs that follow."
Dr Soares cites the case of a three-year-old who would get by on just two biscuits for the whole day.
"You cannot force-feed children of this age," she says.
"At the same time this is a period when the child's body and bone structure is being strengthened and if a child develops picky eating habits, it's the beginning of a long struggle for parents to correct the dietary imbalances."
In sheer desperation to get a child to eat, Dr Soares says parents often offer the child anything.
"Children being children, faced with a choice will opt for juice, chips, burgers and biscuits, which are tasty but unfortunately not so healthy. So on the one hand while a child appetite improves as he grows older, on the other hand, his food habits are likely to become ingrained. A skinny four year old therefore becomes an obese eight year old. As a result, the child's risk of getting diabetes in his adulthood is trebled."
Overexposure to information is also to blame
Dr Soares has come across several cases where parents have been influenced and swayed by the media which insists that health supplements are a must for children.
To combat and address the issue of eating the wrong foods and then having to correct the imbalance caused by these diets, parents often add health supplements like energy drinks and milk supplements to their child's diet.
"I cannot really blame anyone, including the parents, because there is a serious lack of awareness and a paucity of knowledge on proper nutrition and dietary habits among parents themselves."
In an era of information overload and excessive media exposure, parents get "bombarded by information that suggests supplements will improve their child's immunity and IQ. This is untrue," says Dr Soares.
"The most common health supplements," she says, "are milk additives and vitamins. Parents must understand the concept of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)." Scientists have long since defined the precise and exact amounts of nutrients and micro-nutrients that are necessary for daily functioning, that is the RDA.
Parents, suggests Dr. Soares, must read the nutritional information on the box to know of the amount or percentages of the nutrients being supplied by the company making the product. Often, that amount is too small or insufficient to supplement dietary needs. This is especially true in milk additives where the amount adds up to a negligible percentage of calories needed for the day. Parents must not depend on these to make up a good breakfast.
"However, this is not to say that all supplements are to be disregarded," she says. "There is a well-defined role vitamins, iron supplements and calorie additives play in some naturally picky eaters and pubertal teenagers. These children have growth spurts and the case for iron and calcium supplements to keep up with growth is strong."
Administering vitamin supplements in some cases is warranted. "There have been cases where biosocial conditions predispose groups of pregnant women to a deficiency in Vitamin D and as a consequence, their offspring lack it too. So giving these children Vitamin D as a supplement is called for. Many people are unaware that vitamin D in its natural form helps calcium to be absorbed by the body."
A child's ideal diet
According to Dr Soares, "The ideal diet for a child is the original and culture-based diet of the family. Children should eat what the family is eating. This is because the original cuisines for most countries are well-balanced and contain something from all food groups. For example, you will find rice, lentils and vegetables in most Asian diets; breads, meat and salads in the Arab cuisine; noodles with meat and vegetables in South East Asia and the like. It is when individual portions are askew that the problems begin. This is true in cases where children who have large helpings of rice refuse to eat vegetables; or eat noodles with sausages but say no to vegetables along with it. These kids are at a risk of obesity and are still suffering from malnutrition as they lack iron and vitamins.
"In my clinical experience, I have come across children who have a natural [which is the key word] slowing of growth and consequently very little interest in food."
Healthy children, she says, do not need any additional vitamins or supplements. The administration of health supplements could lead to the start of food likes and dislikes.
If supplements have to be given, please do so under medical supervision, she advises.
Also, "children are prone to developing anaemia by rejecting food containing iron. If you think your child has been looking pale, it may be worth taking him to a doctor".
It also helps when a parent insists that disciplined dietary habits be followed by his child.