With kids back in school and cold and flu season just around the corner, many parents are concerned about their children getting sick during the school year.
The main reason why cold and flu season occurs in the winter is that people spend more time indoors in closer proximity to each other. It is unrealistic for kids to avoid being exposed to pathogens like viruses and bacteria at school, and even if it was possible, it is not recommended because exposure is an important part of building a healthy, mature immune system. However, there are things parents can emphasize with their children that will support their immune system.
Firstly, the foundation for building and supporting a healthy immune system depends on proper and adequate nutrition. One aspect of nutrition that is essential for providing the building blocks for components of the immune system is protein. Adequate protein intake is something that many children and parents struggle with. Prioritizing one protein food at every meal will help meet your child’s daily protein requirements. According to Health Canada, the recommended daily intake of protein is 19 grams for children four to eight years, 34 grams for nine to 13 years, 46 grams for females 14-18 years, and 52 grams for males 14-18 years. Protein foods include meat and poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and soy products. Here are examples of the protein content of some of these foods: 21 grams in 2.5 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish, 14 grams in ¾ cup of Greek yogurt, 12 grams in ¾ cup of beans or lentils, and 6 grams in one egg.
Another important nutritional component for the function of the immune system is essential fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are considered essential because the body cannot produce them and they need to be consumed in food. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA is found in nuts and seeds such as hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseed, while the best sources of EPA and DHA are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, trout, and tuna. ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA in the body, but this happens only in very small amounts. Therefore, it’s important to include all three omega-3s in your child’s diet. To meet your child’s omega-3 requirements, the recommendation is at least two servings of oily fish per week and two to four tablespoons of omega-3 containing nuts and seeds per week. If this is not attainable, an omega-3 supplement can help.
Lastly, a vitamin that serves various important roles in the immune system and is crucial for communities living in higher latitudes is vitamin D. Vitamin D is produced by the body from exposure to UV rays from the sun. It can also be consumed in some foods such as oily fish, egg yolks, or foods fortified with vitamin D such as milk, milk alternatives, and some calcium-fortified orange juices. According to Health Canada, the recommended daily intake of vitamin D for children aged one to 18 years is 600 IU. A higher intake is often recommended, but should not exceed the tolerable upper intake levels which are 2500 IU for 1-3 years, 3000 IU for four to eight years, and 4000 IU for nine to 18 years.
There are many factors which play a role in the strength of your child’s immune system. Protein intake, essential fats, and vitamin D are just three of them. Other lifestyle factors such as poor sleep, physical inactivity, stress, and exposure to environmental toxins such as heavy metals, mould, and smoke can have negative effects. As we move into the colder months, prioritizing these lifestyle factors will help support the function of your child’s immune system.