By Colleen Hurley, RD, Certified Kid’s Nutrition Specialist
Chilly weather is here for a while, and so are coughs and colds. Children’s immune systems need extra special care for many reasons. For one, children’s exposure to bacteria is often significantly higher than that of adults, especially children in daycare or preschool. Also, at a young age, children have not been exposed to as many pathogens as adults have. Exposure to flu bugs and bacteria help your body create a specific way to get rid of those bugs, which children are often lacking.
To create a healthy immune system, it is important to provide the body with a whole foods diet full of variety. Get back to basics by eating foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean animal protein. Fruits and vegetables not only contain vitamins, but also are rich sources of antioxidants that help protect tissues from damage. To keep an immune system healthy, it is best to aim for nutrient dense foods, especially since infants and children eat smaller portions. Processed foods such as white sugar and flour, canned or fast foods have been shown in studies to actually weaken the immune system.
There are also many foods that naturally contain immune boosting nutrients such as vitamin C and zinc:
Vitamin C rich foods: bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwi, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, and broccoli
Zinc rich foods: oatmeal, yogurt, legumes, peas, lentils, potatoes, and brown rice
Some foods actually good “bugs” or beneficial bacteria called probiotics. These good bugs can also help the immune system as immunity predominately resides in our digestive systems. Yogurt and kefir are excellent sources of beneficial bacteria that can help improve digestion as well fight the growth of illness-causing bacteria. Be sure to avoid yogurt brands that contain added sugar or food colorings.
Our bodies tend to slow down in the winter, but a little movement goes a long way for child’s immune response. Be sure to make time to get your toddler’s body moving by spending less time in front of the TV. Physical activity increases white blood cells which help a body fight off infection.
If your child is a picky eater, a good quality age appropriate multivitamin might be a good option. There are also many immune boosting supplements for infants and children on the market. Please be sure to consult your pediatrician before taking any supplements.