Micronutrients are the nutrients that our bodies need in small quantities, but this does not mean they are not important! Micronutrients are vitally important for the proper functioning of many different systems in our bodies from muscles to bones to nerves to our brains. All micronutrients are important for children’s health, but these are my top 4 essential micronutrients that many children in the UK are low in.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and a quarter of children aged 1 ½ to 2 ½ years in the UK are low in iron. Iron is needed to make haemoglobin in red blood cells, which transports oxygen around our bodies. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which can cause extreme tiredness, pale skin, lack of appetite and in the long term is associated with delays in a child’s learning and motor development.
Lean red meats and liver are the best sources of iron. Try beef or lamb meatballs, home made burgers or beef stir fry. The type of iron in meats is called ‘haem’ iron and the body absorbs it best.
If your child is vegetarian, lentils and beans, dried apricots, nuts, eggs, wholemeal bread, dark green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals are all sources of iron. But remember that the vegetarian sources of iron are not absorbed very well, so include a source of vitamin C as it aids in the absorption of iron.
Strawberries, kiwi fruit, oranges, peppers, and tomatoes are all good sources of vitamin C.
As we all know, calcium is essential for healthy functioning of bones and teeth. Infants less than 12 months of age have a very high requirement for calcium due to their rapid growth. Older children over 11 years, also have a high calcium requirement due to the growth spurt that occurs at that age.
For children aged 1 to 3 years, as growth slows down, the calcium requirements decrease significantly. During this time, it is important to ensure that your toddler is not drinking too much milk as this may take their appetite away for food.
Milk and all dairy products are the best sources of calcium.
For children 1-3 years, aim for daily amounts of:
100ml whole / semi-skimmed milk plus 80g yoghurt plus 15g cheese (a 30g portion of cheese is about the size of a matchbox)
For 11-18 year olds, aim for daily amounts of:
250ml semi-skimmed milk plus 200g low fat yoghurt plus 45g cheese
If your child has a cow’s milk allergy, they will still be able to meet their calcium requirements with a little careful planning. Below are some ideas for non-dairy sources of calcium:
- Oily fish with soft, edible bones (also a good source of vitamin D)
- Sesame seeds and tahini paste
- Kale and okra
- Dried figs
- Baked beans and red kidney beans
- Some nuts, especially almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts*
- Fortified soya milks, yoghurts and desserts
- Fortified oat milks
- Fortified plant milks such as coconut, almond, hazelnut milks
(NOTE: some of these milks may not be suitable for young children due to their low protein content – please check with a Dietitian)
*Whole nuts should not be given to children under 5, due to the risk of choking.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus for healthy bones and teeth. It is also important for the proper functioning of the immune system. We get most of our vitamin D from the sunlight on our skin, but most people in the UK do not get enough vitamin D in this way.
There are very few naturally occurring sources of vitamin D. Oily fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, pilchards or trout is the only significant source. Eggs and meat provide very small amounts.
The UK Department of Health recommends that all children aged 6 months to 5 years should take a supplement of vitamins A, C and D. Babies who are fed infant formula don’t need vitamin drops if they are having 500ml of formula or more a day. This is because formula is already fortified with the vitamins they need. See www.nhs.uk for further information.
4. Vitamin A
Research has shown that 1 in 10 children under the age of five in the UK aren’t getting enough vitamin A. Vitamin A is needed for the proper functioning of the immune system, keeping your skin healthy and to help your vision in dim light.
Liver is an excellent source of vitamin A, but take care not to have too much (once per week is plenty) if you are pregnant. Dairy products, eggs and oily fish are also very good sources of vitamin A.
Children can also improve their vitamin A intake by eating foods containing beta-carotene as this can be converted to vitamin A in our bodies. Yellow and red vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and red peppers, as well as yellow fruits such as mango, papaya and apricots are all excellent sources.
Paula Hallam is a Paediatric Dietitian with 16 years experience, working in both the NHS and the private sector, as well as consulting to health charities. She currently holds a post at Great Ormond Street Hospital and runs a private practice called ‘Tiny Tots Nutrition’ with clinics in Surbiton and Walton, both in Surrey. Paula enjoys writing a children’s nutrition blog for parents, where you will find useful information and recipes to help with many aspects of feeding and nourishing young children. To read more about Paula click here
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