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Feeding your toddler to support their immune system

Feeding your toddler to support their immune system In built protection

Summary

Your toddler’s immune system is still developing and will continue to become stronger and more complex well into adulthood. Minor childhood illnesses help to strengthen your toddler’s immune system, and their diet provides more support in the form of immune-enhancing nutrients. Learn which nutrients play a key role in the development of their immune system and lifelong health, and how to make sure your toddler gets the variety they need.

Strengthening your toddler’s immune system

Your toddler’s immune system is continually changing, adapting and strengthening in response to external factors. Exposure to germs helps the immune system learn how to defend itself and builds resistance to infections. The food they eat helps to support their natural defences, so they can fight off illness effectively. As a parent, you can support their developing immune system by providing a healthy, balanced diet. A wide range of nutrient-rich foods, as well as good sources of prebiotics, will help to build up their immunity and contribute to their long-term health.

The main nutrients and vitamins that will help to strengthen your toddler’s immune system are:

Prebiotic oligosaccharides (prebiotics)

Prebiotics encourage the beneficial bacteria that populate your toddler’s stomach to thrive. A healthy level of beneficial bacteria is required to defend the body against potentially harmful bacteria. Thereby, foods containing prebiotics provide a natural increase for your toddler’s immune system.

Prebiotics are found naturally in the following foods:

  • Bananas
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Chicory
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Whole-wheat foods

Some growing up milks also contain prebiotics and can complement a balanced diet.

Iron

Iron plays a key role in the formation of haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. It supports normal cognitive development for toddlers and a lack of it can affect the immune system. In fact, toddlers who don’t get enough iron on a regular basis can suffer from a reduced immune function, leaving them less resistant to infection.

Including iron-rich foods like red meats or apricots in your toddler’s healthy, balanced diet can help support their immune system

Toddlers need around 5 times more iron in their diet for their size than an adult. But, even with the best intentions, it can be challenging to make sure your toddler meets their daily iron needs.

Try to include the following iron-rich foods in your toddler’s healthy, balanced diet to help strengthen their immune system:

  • Meat – especially red meat
  • Liver – limit their intake to one portion per week to avoid getting too much vitamin A
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit such as dried apricots
  • Wholegrains such as brown rice
  • Fortified growing up milks
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Soya bean flour
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and curly kale

Zinc

Zinc, a mineral found in all of the body’s tissue, has a number of important functions. As well as aiding the creation of new cells and the enzymes needed to support your toddler’s immune system, it also helps to heal wounds.

The body doesn’t store zinc, so it’s important to include good sources in your toddler’s diet each day1. Foods containing zinc include:

  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Bread
  • Cereal products

Vitamin D2

Vitamin D plays a part in your toddler’s immune function, growth and defence against infections. It is also linked to the prevention of allergies.

The most effective source of vitamin D is sunlight – the body produces it when UVB rays shine on the skin. However, the latitude of the UK means that we only get sufficient sunshine from April until October, and the use of sunscreen limits this even further. The number of food sources is also limited in comparison to other vitamins, and even the richest sources contain insufficient amounts.

It’s no surprise then, that the average toddler intake of vitamin D is just 27% of the Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI), which is 7 micrograms up to the age of 3 years.

For this reason, healthcare professionals recommend that toddlers are supplemented with vitamin D, either in the form of vitamin drops or a fortified growing up milk.

Food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Aptamil Growing Up milk
  • Fortified margarine
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (check the label)

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is needed by white blood cells to fight infection, and is a natural antioxidant. It helps to protect cells and keep your toddler healthy, while aiding the healing process and increasing the body’s ability to absorb iron.

Support your toddler’s immune system and general health by including vitamin C-rich foods in their diet every day. These include:

  • Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi fruit

Vitamin A

Vitamin A supports your toddler’s immune system by playing a role in the generation of antibody responses and the function of immune cells.

Your toddler can get vitamin A from:

  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Fortified low-fat spreads
  • Yogurt
  • Dark green and orange vegetables and fruit – these contain beta-carotene, a substance that the body can convert into vitamin A. Good sources include carrots, sweet potatoes, swede, mango, spinach, dark green cabbage and kale.

Next Steps

Try these healthy meal and snack ideas to support your toddler’s immune system as it develops:

  • Spaghetti bolognese – served with wholegrain pasta
  • Tuna and cheese melts on wholemeal toast triangles
  • Scrambled eggs with grilled, sliced tomatoes and avocado chunks
  • A baked sweet potato with mashed sardines and sweetcorn
  • Natural yogurt with fresh blueberries and chopped banana

View references

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1. Patient.co.uk. Zinc deficiency, excess and supplementation [Online]. Available at: http://patient.info/doctor/zinc-deficiency-excess-and-supplementation [Accessed May 2014]

2. Infant and toddler forum. Preventing vitamin D deficiency in toddlers [Online]. Available at: www.infantandtoddlerforum.org/vitamin-d-deficiency#.U3DRgVeThMI [Accessed May 2014]

Last reviewed: 27th August 2014
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