What good nutrition can do for you

Food for concentration & cognitive function

The impact of poor nutrition on obesity and associated chronic diseases is well established. However, evidence suggests that the quality of a child’s diet not only has a considerable impact on their weight and long term health – but also their ability cope with the behavioural and academic demands of school or nursery. A well-fed brain is more likely to lead to good behaviour and improved learning outcomes.

Food for the brain

During the first two years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly. Nutrients play an important role in this development process, acting as energy sources, structural components and precursors to neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers). Children who don’t receive adequate nourishment during this critical period are therefore at risk of a range of cognitive problems including slower language, lower IQ and poorer academic performance in later childhood.

So which nutrients are particularly important? And where can they be found?

  • Omega 3 fats

4364560% of brain weight is fat, so it’s no surprise that deficiencies in certain fats can have a huge impact on intelligence and behaviour. Most of the connections in the brain are laid down by the age of two, so around 50% of a child’s total calories should come from fat during this period to ensure optimum brain development.

Almost half the fat in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3. DHA helps support the transportation of signals to and from the brain and forms the basis of memory. Studies suggest that children who eat foods rich in DHA therefore display improved recollection skills.

Found in: DHA is not produced by the body in significant amounts, which means it must be obtained through diet or supplementation. The most effective omega 3 fats occur naturally in oily fish such as salmon trout, mackerel, herring and sardines. For those who don’t like fish, flaxseeds and walnuts are also good sources.

  • Zinc

Zinc is important for the hippocampus – a region of the brain linked with learning and memory. Low zinc levels have been linked with fussy eaters and the development of ADHD. In turn, improving zinc levels in children with ADHD has been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation.

Found in: Meats such as lean beef and poultry, dairy products (including yogurt and cheese), nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.

  • Iron

Iron deficiency in 1-2-year-olds has been linked to poor concentration and long-term learning and behaviour problems. Research suggests that around 85% of children with ADHD have low iron levels (compared with just 18% of children without the condition).

Found in: Lean meat, fish and protein-rich meat alternatives (such as eggs, beans, pulses and tofu). It’s also important to provide vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables) to help aid iron absorption.

  • Magnesiumspinach-dd-02

Magnesium is used to produce the neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and has a calming effect on the brain. Deficiencies amongst children are common.

Found in: Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocado, yogurt, bananas and dried fruit.

  • Choline

Choline is a nutrient involved in the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important in the creation of memory stem cells, and therefore helps to boost memory.

Found in: Beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, yogurt, tofu, buckwheat and lean beef. Egg yolks are also a great source of choline, but should not be given to children until 8-9 months.

Additional strategies

As well as making an effort to incorporate key nutrients, there are some additional nutritional and lifestyle strategies that can help improve behaviour and support the growing brain:

  • Blood sugar balance

It is important to keep children’s blood sugar levels stable. Too much refined sugar and children can become hyperactive and find it hard to concentrate. In addition, the brains of young children need a regular supply of energy so that they can think effectively. Lengthy gaps between meals can cause blood sugar levels to dip, and may leave children feeling tired, irritable and easily distracted.

Where possible, opt for slow release 1carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and oats) paired with a source of protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses) to help slow down the absorption of sugars from food. Eating little and often (i.e. main meals interspersed with healthy snacks) also helps keep children’s energy and concentration steady.

  • Reduction in junk food

Research suggests that high junk food diets in children can lead to increased hyperactivity levels. In a society dominated by convenience foods, encouraging a shift towards natural, unprocessed whole foods may seem challenging – but will often lead to improved learning outcomes.

A number of synthetic food additives designed to increase shelf life and enhance colour have been linked to hyperactivity in children and should be avoided where possible. These include tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), carmosine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211).

  • Water

Dehydration adversely affects concentration and mental performance, so it’s important to ensure that children drink plenty throughout the day and that fresh drinking water is always available.

  • ExerciseGame-Card-Glass-Vintage-GraphicsFairy001

As well as a healthy diet, exercise helps to keep brains sharp. Research suggests that regular physical activity improves cognitive function and helps children to process information more effectively.

Providing a nutrient-dense diet doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. Children need nearly 40 different nutrients and the more varied their diet, the more likely it is that they will get enough of everything they need. Providing small yet frequent meals that includes a wide variety of fresh ingredients (including wholegrains, a good mix of lean meat, fish and vegetarian proteins, plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables and lots of water) is the most effective ways of ensuring that children’s brains are well nourished.

A guide to vitamins and minerals – what are you lacking?

Vitamins and minerals are crucial for many essential bodily functions. However, deficiencies are common – often due to poor diet, use of certain medications, chronic illness, poor digestion or not spending enough time outdoors. Infants, the elderly, pregnant women and menstruating women are particularly vulnerable.

Helpfully, the way you look and feel can often help demonstrate exactly what you might be deficient in and what you’d benefit from eating a little more of:

  • If you feel a rundown and want more energy

Feeling rundown or low in energy can often be due to low iron levels, particularly in women. However, it’s important to have iron levels checked by a GP before supplementing with high dose iron supplements, as an excess of iron can be toxic.

A natural way to boost iron levels is to load up on lean meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, pulses and soya products. Eating iron-rich foods with a food or drink high in vitamin C (such as a glass of fresh orange juice) will help enhance iron absorption.

  • If you suffer from skin breakouts

Vitamin C is needed for radiant skin and to help blemishes heal properly. The best sources
are blackcurrants, blueberries, broccoli, guava, kiwi  fruit, oranges, papaya, strawberries and sweet potatoes. These all help to produce collagen that strengthens the capillaries that supply the skin.

1Zinc is involved in the normal functioning of the sebaceous glands in the skin and helps to repair skin damage and keep skin soft and supple. Zinc-rich foods include fish, lean red meat, wholegrains, poultry, nuts, seeds and shellfish.

  • If you’re worried about the effects of ageing

Studies suggest that a selenium-rich diet can help to protect against skin cancer, sun damage and age spots. One way to boost your intake is to eat Brazil nuts – just four nuts will provide the recommended daily amount.

Vitamin E is often a key ingredient in skin creams, but the best way to get your dose is to eat it. Yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potato, mango and peppers (orange and yellow ones) all contain carotenoids, antioxidants that the body converts to Vitamin E, which nourish the layers of skin under the surface.

  • If you struggle to sleep

You may be low in magnesium, a mineral needed for quality sleep. Almonds are a great natural source.

Fish such as tuna, halibut, and salmon are high in vitamin B6, which your body needs to make melatonin (a hormone to aid sleep). Other foods high in B6 include raw garlic and pistachio nuts.

Kale and spinach are loaded with calcium, which helpsspinach-dd-02 the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin, so it’s also worth upping your intake of green leafy vegetables.

  • If you’re vegetarian

Vegetarians are often deficient in omega-3 fats. There are two types of omega-3’s – the long chain versions found in oily fish – (DHA and EPA) and the short chain versions from vegetable oils, particularly flaxseed, walnut, rapeseed and soya oils – (ALA).

Vegetarians are often particularly deficient in long chain fatty acids as although our bodies can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, the conversion isn’t very efficient. It is therefore advisable for vegetarians to consider a supplement made from algae derived DHA if you don’t eat fish, or to include sea vegetables in your diet.

  • If you’ve switched to a vegan diet

Everybody needs regular, reliable sources of vitamin B12, which is found naturally only in animal sources. It is therefore imperative that you supplement B12 or include B12 fortified foods (such as fortified soya, yeast extract and nutritional yeast) if you’re a vegan.

When avoiding dairy foods, you may also be low in calcium. This can be found in tofu, fortified foods such as soya, rice or oat milks and green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, sesame seeds and tahini.

  • If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant

When trying to improve your fertility it is worth setting aside a 3 month period to make positive changes to your vitamin and mineral status. If using the contraceptive pill, this can deplete many vitamins and minerals (including vitamin B2, B6, C, A and zinc) and may have a detrimental effect.

liver-detox-smoothie-copyFolic acid is the most essential pregnancy nutrient (both before and during pregnancy), working together with vitamin B12 to ensure that the baby’s genetic materials are fully developed. It is difficult to get sufficient quantities from food alone, so is the only supplement that all women must take before conception.

400mcg per day is recommended from 3 months prior to conception until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, plus a further 200mcg from food (found in beans, peanuts, avocado and green leafy vegetables).

Retinol (the animal form of vitamin A found in many supplements) should be avoided during pregnancy, as it can cause developmental and birth defects in excess. It is therefore important to be cautious when taking multi vitamin supplements or Cod Liver Oil which can contain high levels of Vitamin A in retinol form.

© Sarah West Nutrition

How to get back on track post-Christmas

The festive period is so filled with temptation and indulgence it can be a real struggle to revert to healthy eating and exercise habits come January. Lack of sunlight lowers the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, so your enthusiasm often feels lower than ever at this time of year.

Here are some top tips to help you to get back on track and feeling your best:

  • Re-train your brain

Instead of resenting the changes you’ll need to make, think of the nutritious food you eat as high quality fuel that will help you look and feel better with every mouthful. Make a list to remind yourself of all the benefits of regular exercise (such as feeling less sluggish, reducing digestive discomfort and being able to wear clothes you don’t currently feel comfortable in) and ensure you create positive associations with your new healthy lifestyle.

  • Ditch the detox

Before you attempt a strict January detox, it’s time to cleanse yourself of the concept that we need to be periodically detoxified. Restrictive detox diets might claim to liver-detox-smoothie-copyrid your system of toxins, but your body already does that job for you; working to break down what goes in, absorb the good and excrete the not so good. Restricting your food consumption limits intake of energy and important nutrients needed for good health, which can cause unhealthy side effects such as headaches, dizziness and low energy. If you want to maintain optimal health then the best approach is a balanced diet.

  • Be realistic

Rather than focusing on one ultimate end result, try dissecting your goals into smaller, bite-size pieces to make them seem less intimidating. Take it one day at a time (for example eating a healthy breakfast, or going for a daily walk) then gradually up the pace. By being realistic with your goals, you’ll be far less likely to feel overwhelmed and throw in the towel by the end of the month.

  • Be prepareddetoxification-camtreatments

By keeping a well-stocked kitchen, you’ll be better equipped to keep up your healthy eating plans. Cheap and easily available, lentils are high in protein and fibre but low in fat.  Keep a few cans in your cupboard, rinse thoroughly then add to salads, soups, casseroles and stir-fries for a nutritious protein boost. Frozen and pre-chopped fruits and vegetables are also a godsend for throwing together smoothies and quick, nutrient-dense meals.

  • Try something new

You’ll find it particularly hard to get back on the wagon if you’re not excited by the meals you’ll be eating. Have a good look through recipe books, magazines and blogs and plan to cook something tempting and delicious each week.

  • Get some support

Let your friends and family know what you’re trying to achieve and that you would appreciate their support. It’s likely that someone close to you will have similar health and fitness goals, and working together can be a great way to stay motivated.

How to survive Christmas with IBS

The festive season is traditionally a food and drink extravaganza. With party food all around and alcohol flowing freely, it can be a real challenge to manage your IBS during the month of December.

However, surviving Christmas with minimal suffering is perfectly achievable with a few adjustments and a bit of planning ahead:

  1. Make a contribution

Many IBS sufferers dread going out for meals, as it can feel impossible to avoid known triggers. If you’re invited to a friend or family member’s house for a Christmas meal this
year, ask if you can bring one of your own dishes to help out. This ensures there will always be something on the table that you know you can tolerate, so you can load up your plate without stress or fear.

  • Don’t overdo it74802043781259757_G9yOBXY3_c

The average Christmas dinner contains around 70% of an adult’s overall daily calorie intake. While it might be traditional to pile your plate with a mountain of food, your gut won’t thank you for it. Breaking down your daily food intake into several smaller meals (rather than one big blow-out) makes far lighter work for your digestive system – resulting in significantly less digestive discomfort.

  • Trim the fat

High fat foods are a common IBS trigger. Before you cook your turkey, prick the skin to allow the fat to drain out then cook it on an upturned ovenproof plate so it’s not sitting in the fat. Serve with lots of steamed vegetables and be sure to remove the skin before you eat it.

  • Drink wisely

39406565459135133_4f8KUedZ_cIf you’re prone to bloating and gas, steer clear of fizz such as champagne, prosecco and carbonated mixers, which can leave you feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. Instead, stick to soft drinks or alternate gentler drinks (such as white wine and soda) with non-alcoholic alternatives.

  • De-stress

Stress and anxiety can exacerbate the symptoms of IBS, and Christmas is commonly a hectic and stressful time. Acknowledging this – and taking appropriate steps to manage stress – can be a real turning point. Make an effort to take the pressure off this Christmas and factor in some proper time to relax.

  • Keep active

Your digestive system is much more efficient when you keep active, so slumping in front of the television won’t do your IBS any favours. A brisk walk after lunch can speed up a sluggish digestion and help relieve stress to boot. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise will help.

Here’s to a happy, healthy Christmas.

© Sarah West Nutrition

Understand your cravings

  • You really crave… takeaway curry
  • You might actually need… zinc

10-of-the-healthiest-curries-612442_w600h600.jpgA lack of zinc reduces taste bud function, so spicy food can be the only thing with any flavour. Get your zinc levels back on track by upping your intake of wholegrains, seafood and red meat. People can crave also crave spicy foods if they have a diet that is particularly bland or repetitive – sprinkling turmeric, cayenne pepper, Indian spice blends and chilli flakes on your meals and including additional variety and nutrient-dense foods ought to hit the spot.

Swap for: Homemade prawn or chickpea curry, served with wholegrain rice & turmeric and live yogurt

  • You really crave… a bag of chips
  • You might actually need… to slow down

When you are very busy and stressed your body can stop producing the correct amounts of chips-main-imagehormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol andaldosterone. This can disrupt the balance of salt and other minerals in the body and may explain your cravings for salty chips. Table salt and processed foods are stripped of these minerals, so knocking back a bag of chips won’t help; try leafy green vegetables, seaweed salads or Himalayan sea salt. It may also help to come up with a new way to slow down and unwind, whether it’s a walk in the park or a relaxing massage. You will curb your cravings and by cutting your sodium intake, also lower your risk of heart disease.

Swap for: Baked sweet potatoes sprinkled with a small amount of Himalayan sea salt 

  • You really crave… A packet of crisps
  • You might actually need… minerals

Nuts-various-edible2Poor nutrition, very low calorie diets, fasting or diets lacking green leafy vegetables and whole grains could cause a mineral deficiency and make you particularly crave salty foods like crisps. Our bodies need calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and other minerals to keep our systems running smoothly. Many minerals have a salty flavour, so when you get the message to eat crisps, your body may be trying to tell you to eat more minerals. You will keep craving salt until your mineral needs are met. A varied diet should provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need and in their necessary amounts- however, studies show a decline in the mineral content of the foods we eat due to over-farming, chemical fertilisers and the increased consumption of processed foods. Focusing on eating fresh, non-processed foods with help to address this.

Swap for: A handful of unsalted nuts and seeds – almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds

  • You really crave… A sugary doughnut
  • You might actually need… a good night’s sleep

A craving for sugary foods can be a sign that your body’s blood glucose levels are low. Medically this is known as hypoglycaemia. When the level of sugar in the body drops, there is a tendency for the body to crave foods which replenish sugar quickly – including sweet foods such as doughnuts. Giving into your sweet cravings occasionally won’t do you any real harm, but sweets and sugar are empty calories with little or no nutritional value. Try to avoid refined or processed sugars and opt for ‘good’ sugars, such as fruit and complex carbs. The key to stabilising the blood sugar levels and avoiding sweet cravings is eating regular meals based on slow energy-releasing foods.

Swap for: Fresh mixed berries – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries – with plain live yogurt 

  • You really crave… bread
  • You might actually need… serotonin

4574Studies suggest that those who cut back on carbohydrates are susceptible to mood swings due to reduced levels of the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin. Bread make us feel better when we’re depressed because carbohydrates boost serotonin levels. Craving bread might also be a sign that you’re not consuming enough carbohydrates for your body’s energy needs – causing you to crave carbs as they’re one of the best ways for you to get energy fast. Check if you are eating enough for your lifestyle and increase your intake of low glycaemic-index carbs that give the steadiest, slowest and longest increase in blood sugar levels. These include lentils, yogurt, wholegrain pasta, porridge and fruit (not fruit juices). These slow-burn carbs keep your energy up for longer.

Swap for: A couple of oatcakes with almond butter or cottage cheese

  • You really crave… meat
  • You might actually need… iron

Cravings for meat often coincide with feeling sleepy and lacking in concentration. This is a classic iron craving. Load up on lean meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, pulses, vegetable protein foods and soya products and eat them with another food high in vitamin C to enhance absorption (such as a salad with spinach and orange slices). There are also small amounts in grains and dairy products.

Swap for: Spaghetti bolognese made with soya mince / lentils, kidney beans and a glass of fresh orange juice

  • You really crave… junk food
  • You might actually need… chromium

Junk foods not only stimulate morphine-like endorphins in the brain, but also raise levels of feel-good serotonin (our natural Prozac) and cortisol (our stress-coping, energising 656adrenal hormone). It’s therefore all too easy to get hooked on foods that can amplify so many of
our powerful mood and pleasure-enhancing chemicals. If you crave junk food in the afternoons, it’s probably because your serotonin levels are dipping. To regulate your blood sugar levels and ease cravings, eat foods rich in chromium, such as cheese, shellfish and wholemeal bread, cereals or pasta. High protein foods such as chicken, fish, seafood and pulses also help to reduce sugar lust.

Swap for: A wholemeal pasta salad with steamed green vegetables & grilled chicken / prawns

© Sarah West Nutrition


Nutrition for school sports

Nutrition helps provides vital fuel for physical activity, and it’s crucial that active children and adolescents consume well-balanced meals and snacks to help support school sports.

6754603d4ec0cfbeba712814e4d5d373Eating well for physical activity and sport can have many benefits including:

  • Increased energy and improved sporting performance
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Better recovery after exercise

School-age children (aged 6 to 16) generally need between 1,600 and 3,200 calories a day. Those who consume healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get all the nutrients needed to perform well in sports, with no additional calories required. However, the timing of eating and exercising can impact on how children feel and perform during their chosen activity, as well as the balance of macro-nutrients consumed at each stage.

Before exercise

  • If children don’t eat anything at all before taking part in sports, they may lack energy and feel light headed. However, too much food can slow them down and make them feel unwell. It is therefore important to time food consumption right.
  • If children are consuming a full meal before exercise, this should be eaten around 2-3 hours prior to allow for adequate digestion. A small snack can be consumed around 30-60 minutes before exercise to help to top up energy levels.
  • It takes the body approximately four to six hours 20120531-154158-800x533to digest fat, around three hours to digest protein and about two hours to digest carbohydrates. It is therefore important that children focus on consuming mainly easily digestible carbohydrates directly before sports, so the body can focus on fuelling exercising muscles rather than digesting a heavy meal.
  • Making sure children are well hydrated before they start an exercise session is important, so encourage them to drink regularly throughout the day and with their pre-exercise meal. A sports drink is OK once in a while, but these drinks contain a lot of sugar and calories so water or diluted fruit juice is a better choice.

Food suggestions

  • An ideal pre-workout snack is a banana and a couple of oatcakes; this will provide a boost of energy without weighing children down. Bananas are also packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining proper nerve and muscle function
  • If eating several hours beforehand, a meal based around wholemeal pasta or brown rice with plenty of colourful vegetables is ideal. This is a great way to increase stored
    energy in the muscles and give children the extra oomph they need later in the day

During exercise

  • Game-Card-Glass-Vintage-GraphicsFairy001It is generally not necessary for children to consume food during exercise, unless they are participating in endurance or high intensity sports lasting over 60 minutes (such as long distance running or competitive swimming events). This is when carbohydrate stores may substantially decrease.
  • It is, however, important for children to consume plenty of fluids during exercise, especially if they are exercising in high temperatures. It is important not to wait until children are thirsty to allow them to drink, as this is a sign that they are already dehydrated.

After exercise

  • Children will often feel very hungry after exercise, and food and fluid intake is crucial for optimum recovery after sporting activities. After exercise carbohydrate stores will be lower, so it is important that they are replenished with a carbohydrate-rich meal –
    especially if the child is doing more exercise later on that day or the following day
  • The post-exercise meal should also include high
    quality, lean protein. Consuming this as soon as blafre20-294x300possible after exercise will be most beneficial for recovery, helping to repair exercise-induced damage to muscle fibres and help reduce soreness.
  • If children are unable to have a full meal after exercise, try to ensure they have a small snack that contains both carbohydrate and protein within the first 30-60 minutes to help begin the recovery process
  • To replace the fluid lost from sweating, it is vital to restore hydration levels as part of recovery, so remember to encourage children to keep drinking plenty of fluids after exercising

Food suggestions

  • A chicken sandwich or salad with sliced avocado or a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts are ideal post-sport snacks. Alternatively, a vegetable omelette or a baked potato with tuna or beans contains the perfect mix of carbohydrates and protein to help children get the most from their sporting activities.

© Sarah West Nutrition

Supplements for children – are they necessary?

Good nutrition in the early years is vital. It is during this time that children create lifelong food preferences and set the foundations for long-term health – making pre-school children far more nutritionally vulnerable at this point than in any other phase of their life. Despite this, many children still aren’t getting the balanced diets they need.

Ideally, children should get their vitamins from a balanced, healthy diet that includes:

  • 4364Starchy foods like wholemeal bread, pasta, oats and brown rice
  • Milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt
  • Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Protein such as lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses

However, many children aren’t consuming balanced, nutrient-dense meals. Picky eaters and children with food allergies or intolerances often don’t consume sufficient calories or are reliant on highly processed convenience foods, which are deficient in the vitamins they need to grow and develop.

The 2016 National Diet & Nutrition Survey, an annual survey designed to assess the food consumption and nutritional status of the UK, supported this. It revealed that:

  • Children are consuming almost three times more sugar than the daily maximum recommendation (amounting to 13% of their daily calorie intake)
  • Intake of added sugars exceeds the recommendation – most notably for children aged 4 to 10
  • Consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks (which can leach vitamins and minerals from the body) is still too high
  • Average salt intake in children aged 4 to 18 years exceeds recommendations
  • Just 8% of children are meeting the 5 a day recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption
  • Average consumption of oily fish (one of the best dietary source of Vitamin D) is well below the recommended one portion per week

The role of supplements

The Department of Health therefore recommends that all children aged six months to five years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. It is also recommended that babies who are breastfed are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth. The only children exempt from this recommendation are babies who consume more than 500ml (about a pint) of fortified infant formula a day.

Addressing vitamin deficiencies is a key part of the UK Government’s Healthy Start initiative, supporting families with children under the age of 4 years. Women supported by vitamins_image-e1396976178979Healthy Start are entitled to free vitamin tablets during pregnancy and until their child is one year old. Children aged from six months to their fourth birthday are also entitled to free vitamin drops.

Healthy Start children’s vitamin drops contain:

  • Vitamin A: For growth, vision and healthy skin. Also found in colourful fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamin C: To help maintain healthy tissue in the body. In a balanced diet most of the vitamin C required can be sourced from fruit and vegetables, but a supplement will help ensure young children get enough – particularly as vitamin C isn’t stored by the body
  • Vitamin D: For strong bones and teeth. Babies and young children under the age of 5 are considered an ‘at risk’ group for vitamin D deficiency – with statistics suggesting that Vitamin D intake for children aged 1.5 to 3 is currently just 20% of the recommended nutrient intake (RNI)

Despite the recognised need for such nutrients, the vitamin scheme is currently underutilised by many parents. Over 500,000 women and children currently benefit from Healthy Start food vouchers, but very few claim their Healthy Start vitamins – meaning the scheme is not fulfilling its potential to address widespread vitamin deficiencies and potentially improve the health of future generations.

How to get Healthy Start vitamins

Click here to find phone numbers and addresses for local distribution points around England. You can also ask your midwife or health visitor. Beneficiaries are entitled to one bottle of vitamin drops every eight weeks.packshot_strawberryliquid

Bassetts also do a range of liquid and chewy multivitamins that use sweeteners and natural flavourings to make them more palatable for young children. The range includes additional nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, making them ideal for fussy eaters. Try the strawberry flavour liquid multivitamins for children aged 6-36 months or the soft and chewy variety for those aged 3-6.

Disclaimer: Having too much of certain vitamins can be harmful. Always keep to the recommended dose stated on the label, and be careful not to give your child more than one supplement at the same time.

© Sarah West Nutrition

A guide to nutritious packed lunches

No single food group will provide all the nutrients that growing children need (for energy, weight management, cognitive function, growth and development). To get the right balance, a nutritious packed lunch should contain the following:

  • Energy-giving carbohydrates (such as wholemeal bread, pittas and pasta, oatcakes, rice cakes and potatoes). Wholemeal bread and pasta contain more nutrients and fibre than white alternatives, meaning they take longer for the body to digest and keep children feeling fuller for longer. 34Rice should be avoided in packed lunches as it can be a food poisoning risk when kept at room temperature
  • A source of protein – such as lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses, hummous or a small pot of nuts/nut butter (in non-allergic individuals)
  • A dairy item (such as mini individually wrapped cheeses) or yoghurt. Opt for natural yogurt where possible, with added berries for natural sweetness
  • Vegetables or salad (celery and carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes are tasty and easy to eat, and good to dip in hummous or tzatziki)
  • A portion of fruit (such as a banana, an easy-peel satsuma, dried apricots or a small box of raisins)

Fruits and vegetables that include a mix of bright colours will also provide the most varied selection of beneficial nutrients – encourage your child to ‘eat a rainbow’.

Foods to avoid

Research has shown that a typical packed lunch serves up more than a six-year-old’s entire daily sugar limit. Most of the sugar content found in packed lunches comes from ‘free sugars’ – these are sugars added to food (such as sucrose and glucose) or those naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. It does not include sugar naturally present in milk, whole fruit and vegetables.chocIMG_7886

Avoid your child filling up on free sugars and empty calories by limiting processed, convenience foods with poor nutritional value – such as fizzy drinks, crisps, chocolate, biscuits or sweets. A two-finger Kit Kat contains 48% a seven-year old’s recommended sugar intake, so is best as a treat a couple of times a week, rather than an everyday staple. Swap chocolate or cereal bars for lower sugar alternatives – such as fruit in sugar free jelly or popcorn.

Drinks such as Fruits Shoots and Capri Sun can contain more than a six year-old’s recommended maximum daily free sugar intake, so are also best avoided (with water, sugar free squash or milk good alternatives).

© Sarah West Nutrition

Healthy eating starts with you – how to be a positive food role model for your child

44050902574705617xtH0qrFGcOne of the biggest challenges many parents face is having a picky eater in the family. Many children become fussy with food around the age of 18-24 months, often forming the start of a long term battle for many parents.

The Government recommends that all children eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but research suggests that only 1 in 5 children achieve this – with many pre-schoolers often having days where they eat no fruit or vegetables at all. In contrast, the average child consumes more than three times the maximum amount of processed sugar recommended.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but children particularly require a range of nutrients for healthy growth and development. A nutritious diet can stabilise energy, sharpen the mind and improve mood – allowing children to maximise their potential both at home and at nursery or school.

So how can you help encourage your child to eat a nutritious and varied diet and develop a positive relationship with food?

Lead by example

The way parents talk about food and the types of foods they choose to eat are the most important influencers when it comes to a child’s eating habits. Children learn by example
and love to copy, so it’s crucial to make a conscious effort to practice what you preach.

Top tips:

  • Try to eat together as much as possible. 2Research suggests that family mealtimes have a big impact on food choices later in life, and encourages consumption of fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
  • When eating around your child, be sure to eat across all food groups – including a good mix of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans and pulses. If you make poor choices, your child will be encouraged to do the same.
  • Don’t give any attention to food refusal – this can simply encourage it. Instead, focus on people around the table who are eating well and discuss aspects of the meal that were particularly enjoyed. It may take time, but your child will eventually realise that they will get more attention from eating well than they do from being fussy.

Increase Exposure

Parents have an important role to play in increasing a child’s familiarity with fruits and vegetables – not only at mealtimes, but in a variety of settings. The aim is to make these a familiar part of everyday life and not just a dreaded moment at the table.

Top tips:

  • Point out and talk about healthy foods as often as possible. Read books that contain bright images of fruits and vegetables and use real fruits and vegetables in games and activities. Allow your child to help pick out healthy foods and encourage physical contact with them.
  • Children love to eat foods they have grown themselves, so try growing your own. You don’t need an allotment or any expertise – many foods can be grown in a pot on your windowsill.

Keep at it

Studies show that children are born with an innate fondness for sweet foods and less of a preference for bitter or sour foods. To help override this response, it’s important for parents to repeatedly expose children to flavours that they are naturally wary of, rather than simply feeding them the foods they like to eat. If your child rejects kale and broccoli and is never offered it again, they simply won’t EVER learn to like it.

6755 (2)Top tips:

  • Offer small portions, and then encourage children to go for seconds if they are still hungry. This will seem less overwhelming than large, adult-sized portions.
  • To mix things up, try offering fruits and vegetables in these different states – e.g. raw, boiled, steamed, oven-cooked. You might find that while your child doesn’t like boiled carrots, they will eat them raw.
  • It takes approximately 11 times for a child to try a new food. To make the process easier, try to offer the same food in different ways. For example, raw carrot as sticks (great for dipping) but also grated or in a smoothie. Keep track of when and how a food is offered with a star chart – you can offer a star for every new vegetable eaten or when your child tastes a food they have previously rejected.

Avoid making separate meals

Offering up a selection of entirely alternative meals at meal times teaches children that they can control the food they eat, which they will soon learn to exploit.

Top Tips:

  • Only ever offer a choice between two healthy options at meal times. This allows an element of choice and independence but ensures you’re still in control (and leads to less waste).
  • If a meal is still refused, it’s best to clear it away after 20 minutes or so (or after you’ve finished your meal) and put it in the fridge to try again later.
  • Avoid forcing or coaxing your child into eating, as this can further establish a negative relationship with food. Whilst many parents are afraid of their child going hungry, missing meals ultimately makes them hungrier for the next meal and more likely to eat it. Whatever you do, avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battle.
  • Offer healthy snacks between meals so that your child won’t ever have to go too long without some fuel. However, avoid replacing meals or snacks with milk. If children are filling up on milk they are not going to be hungry for meals and solid foods, which is what should make up the majority of their calories by the age of one.

© Sarah West Nutrition

Coeliac disease

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition in which consumption of gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – triggers an immune response. The immune system mistakes the gluten for a hostile organism and causes an inflammatory reaction, damaging the lining of the small intestine and interfering with the absorption of nutrients.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of coeliac disease vary from person to person and can range from very mild to severe. Potential symptoms include any of the following:

  • Diarrhoea (more than three loose stools per day)4574
  • Constipation
  • Excessive wind
  • Persistent, unexplained nausea
  • Recurrent stomach pain, cramping or bloating
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Tiredness and/or headaches
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Weight loss

The affected area of the intestine may be patchy, leading to only very mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all . Many adults with subtle disease experience only mild fatigue or anaemia. Due to the wide range of potential symptoms and overlaps with other common digestive complaints (such as irritable bowel syndrome and wheat intolerance), large numbers of coeliac cases remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

In babies, symptoms may appear shortly after they have been weaned onto solid foods, including cereals which contain gluten. The baby may fail to gain weight after previously growing well and start show signs of muscle wasting in the arms and legs. As their food is not being absorbed properly, their stools may become pale and bulky and diarrhoea might occur. The abdomen may become bloated and swollen and the baby may experience repeated vomiting.


The cause of coeliac disease is unknown, although it is thought to be associated with a mix of genetic and environmental factors. 23256-1_nIt is most common in individuals who have a close family member with the disease and those who suffer from other autoimmune diseases – such as hypothyroidism, type-1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. It is more prevalent in women than in men. It is not currently known whether intolerance to gluten is present at birth or develops later on in life.


In cases where coeliac disease is suspected, a blood test to detect a specific antibody may be suggested in order to confirm a preliminary diagnosis. It is important that a diet including gluten is followed for at least six weeks before this blood test is performed in order for the antibodies to be detected. Professional guidelines recommend that a positive blood test is followed by an endoscopy (visual examination using a long tube) and tissue biopsy. Further investigations may also be performed to identify related complications such as anaemia, calcium deficiency and hypothyroidism.

A small proportion of patients with symptoms of IBS have underlying coeliac disease, and screening for coeliac disease is therefore recommended by NICE for those with IBS symptoms.


The only known effective treatment for coeliac disease is a lifelong gluten-free diet, which prevents the damage to the lining of the intestines and reduces associated gastrointestinal symptoms. Symptoms should improve considerably within weeks of starting a gluten-free diet, 3although it can take up to two years for the digestive system to completely heal. It is important to comply to the diet strictly, as even consuming small amounts of gluten can sensitise the gut and cause symptoms to return.

In addition to avoiding gluten you may be advised to take vitamin supplements such as iron, calcium and vitamin D following diagnosis (depending on the level of deficiency and grade of the diagnosis) in order to address any deficiencies and ensure that you obtain sufficient nutrients whilst the gut lining heals. Testing may be repeated several times in the first year following diagnosis, along with bone scans and biopsies to track progress and monitor risk of complications.

Foods to avoid

If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease, you should always check the ingredients on any pre-prepared foods that you buy. Many processed foods contain gluten in additives, such as malt flavouring and modified food starch.

You must not eat any of the following unless they are labelled as gluten-free:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Cereals
  • Biscuits or crackers
  • Cakes, pastries and pies
  • Foods in batter or breadcrumbs
  • Alcoholic drinks containing barley (such as beer and lager)

Wheat must be avoided, as well as wheat sub-species (such as spelt, semolina and durum) and related species such as barley and rye which will also induce symptoms. Some coeliac patients also react to oats as they are often contaminated with wheat during processing. Maize (corn), millet, amaranth, rice, and wild rice are safe for patients to consume, as well as quinoa and buckwheat.

oh3435p19-grains-flours-starches-mYou can buy special gluten-free flour, pasta, bread and other snack foods to eat as alternatives; look for the ‘Free-From’ ranges in your local supermarkets. You may also be able to obtain the basics on prescription following a confirmed coeliac diagnosis. However, it is important to be aware that these pre-prepared ‘convenience’ products can be expensive and highly processed, meaning they are often low in nutritional value. Health food shops and specialist online companies may be able to offer more reasonably priced, wholesome alternatives.


If successfully diagnosed, the outlook for coeliac disease is generally good. However, the prognosis for untreated coeliac disease can range from moderate to poor. Without treatment, coeliac disease can cause a wide range of potential long-term complications such as malnutrition, osteoporosis, infertility and growth defects. Some research has also suggested that having coeliac disease can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer, including cancer, intestinal lymphoma and cancer of the oesophagus.

It is important to seek advice from your GP if you suspect you are suffering from coeliac disease. Do not simply attempt to treat yourself with a gluten-free diet unless you have received a confirmed diagnosis; is important to ensure you receive the appropriate medical follow-up and support in order to make a full recovery.

© Sarah West Nutrition