Nutrition is important in laying the foundation of a healthy child. It plays a vital role in the mental, social, physical and behavioural development of toddlers. Today, children are subject to an imbalance of nutrients. They consume fats, sugars and salt in excess while the intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals is compromised. This imbalance in diet reflects as both short term and long term ill effects on health, ranging from poor growth to obesity, mood swings to reduced concentration spans, and increased tantrums to mental and physical sluggishness.
Nutrition plays a vital role in either preventing or managing these issues in your toddler. Let’s look at how an inappropriate diet can harm your toddler’s health and how this can be prevented.
Each nutrient is important for the growth and development of a toddler. The rate at which the nutrients are absorbed and utilised in a young child is very high. Inadequate care in planning her diet can impair her growth. Her muscle strength and acuity of eyes improve rapidly, so does the development of her bones and teeth. Hence, it is imperative to provide her with the right quantity of the required nutrients in each meal. Hence, nutrients like essential fatty acids, proteins of high biological value, calcium-magnesium rich foods, fat and water-soluble vitamins, and iron play a crucial role in aiding optimum growth.
Dental caries, muscle cramps
Consuming food rich in sugars and fats like wafers, bakery products, aerated drinks, packaged juices and ready-to-cook foods leads to poor health. Early Childhood Tooth Decay (ECTD), malformed bones (e.g. knock knees and bow knees) and regular muscle cramps are the most common repercussions of foods low in calcium and magnesium and increased consumption of simple carbohydrates.
High intake of nutritionally poor foods causes obesity leading to long-term diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
Poor memory and cognitive skills
Toddlerhood is a time of rapid brain development, when the brain develops the capacity to learn and builds cognitive skills (working memory and attention). This requires specific nutrients like choline, folic acid, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A and some special fats like gangliosides, sphingolipids and docosahexaenoic acid. Poor intake of these nutrients can lead to deficiency in your toddler’s brain development. It is important to monitor the mental developmental milestones of a child to assess the growth of the brain. A few indications of a well-developed brain are:
Mental development expected: Achieves object performance, uses telegraphic sentences—2-4 word sentences and has a 250-word vocabulary, uses objects to imitate, etc.
Mental development expected: Uses longer sentences, develops a strong ego, uses pronouns, turns pages carefully, identifies photographs, etc.
Learning disabilities caused by malnutrition
A toddler’s brain is growing rapidly, and is, at the same time, sensitive to insufficient supply of nutrients. Pascual-Leone et al. note that brain plasticity is the mechanism that supports development and learning, and if a nutrient deficient diet is given to the toddler, it can cause clinical disorders.
‘Junk food is not food’ goes the old adage as it is full of additives like artificial colours and flavours, preservatives, sugar and bad fats, which can decrease focus and slow down the thought process. These foods intensify the bouts of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), increase dyslexia, reduce concentration, increase dysgraphia and hamper visual sensations. If your toddler shows symptoms like excessive running around in the house, destructive behaviour, inability to sleep at night, or concentrate during the day, it may be due to nutritional deficiency. He may even show visual and muscular incoordination and an inability to cope with simple problems and find solutions to it.
How poor nutrition affects your toddler’s social skills
Inadequate mental development of your toddler may be reflected in the social and behavioural planes too. A child will show the first symptoms of malnourishment on the behavioural plane, as frequent temper tantrums, excessive aggression, nervousness, and irritability. If you ignore the first signs as ‘a passing phase’ you may lose the chance for an early intervention. Watch your toddler closely to identify the two main types of disruptive behaviour disorders—Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD). A child who throws temper tantrums often or is disobedient or argues with adults or peers on a regular basis, may have Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). More serious problems like frequent physical aggression, stealing or bullying may be a sign of Conduct Disorder (CD).
It is best to inculcate good habits and healthy eating in children, at an early age. Imposing too many restrictions is not advisable.
The author is Chapter Secretary, Indian Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition