A child eating optimal nutrition to boost immunity.

A Nutritional Guide to Strengthening Your Child’s Immune System

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Receiving a bundle of joy can be incredible, exhausting, and a constant opportunity to learn to love. For a child, this completely new world outside of the womb invites exploration of every kind — whether it be the sticks and stones in the backyard to social interactions with other kids and parents.

The unseen learning behind each interaction happens inside a child’s immune system. As the child continues to explore the world, things you would never think of ingesting pop into their mouths, noses, eyes, and ears. Thus begins the not-so-fun experience of sickness.

Though this exposure is a normal part of a child’s immune system beginning to strengthen, it is still painful to see a child be sick. There are many things we cannot control in life, but one thing we can do is ensure that we are providing the best environment for a child’s immune system to strengthen — starting with the nourishment we provide our children. With great nutritional foundations for a child’s health, they can face whatever pathogens come their way with vigor.

Supporting Mother’s Nutritional Needs First

In many ways, mothers have a wonderful opportunity to model healthy living and eating habits for their children — starting with pregnancy. A mother’s immune health directly impacts a baby’s immune health development. In fact, mothers can pass their antibodies to their children in pregnancy.

Having a proper balance of health-promoting bacteria in the gut helps regulate the immune system. In a natural birth, a mother passes along the collection of bacteria in her microbiome to her child. If her microbiome has a healthy balance of health-promoting bacteria, her child will benefit from its immune-strengthening factors. If a natural birth isn’t possible, mothers can still help boost their child’s microbiome through their breast milk.

Once an infant is born, all nutrients come either through their mother’s breast milk or a quality formula.

If choosing to breastfeed, consider consuming the following quantities to best support you and your child’s health:

  • Protein: 71 grams per day (or 25 grams more than their prior diet)
  • Fat: should make up to 30% of total calories consumed, prioritizing quality omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
  • Carbohydrates: at least 175 grams per day (3 servings of fruit and four servings of vegetables)
  • Increase Fiber intake (up to 28 grams daily)

Prioritizing nutrient-dense food will provide the necessary nourishment to pass on a healthy immune system and microbiome. Antioxidants help our immune systems fight inflammation and pathogens that we encounter through daily life. They do this by helping to neutralize free radicals and prevent further oxidative stress. Most fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and are worth consuming prolifically.

Optimal Nutrition in Infancy

Around a child’s first birthday, they may begin to show interest in solid foods. When introducing children to food, we can begin to introduce them to antioxidant-rich foods.

Since fats and simple carbohydrates are easiest to digest, consider beginning a child with pureed cooked carrot, avocado, sweet potato, and parsnip.

To prevent pickiness at an early age, it is important to introduce children to whole foods that come in a variety of colors — from purple beets to green avocados. This will help children to be open to trying and enjoying various colored foods throughout their lives. Letting them play with their food also helps them to begin to explore their relationship with food.

To ensure you are providing quality ingredients for your child, it’s ideal to make pureed foods rather than purchase commercial brand ones at the store. Most commercial baby foods go through a heating process that can allow carcinogens to leach into the food. For example, high levels of arsenic have been found in baby rice cereal. In addition, many baby foods contain added preservatives and sugar — both of which are not good for a baby’s very fragile digestive system and overall health.

Parents strengthening their children's immune system by feeding her.

READ MORE >>> Childhood Nutrition Newborn to One-Year-Old

What Toddlers Should Be Eating

Oh, to be roaming and free! At this delightfully explorative time (and sometimes coupled with stressful times), 2-year-olds can begin to share in family meals.

In this stage, we can begin to encourage healthy eating habits for the entire family to share. Choosing nutrient-dense foods like those mentioned above and avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats, builds a solid foundation for all ages.

To encourage fruit and vegetable consumption for toddlers, consider serving them to children in fun shapes and designs.

From ages 2-3, it is best to aim to consume 13 grams of protein daily.

Vitamin D increases the immune system’s efficacy and is important to prioritize through sunlight and supplementation early on in a child’s life. Though supplementation at this age is not necessary with a well-balanced diet, you can consider supplementing with 400 IU per day of Vitamin D3 starting at 6 months of age during times of low sunlight. If children do not consume fish regularly, you can also consider giving them a children’s dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

READ MORE >>> Childhood Nutrition Ages 1-5 Years Old

Children’s Nutritional Needs

As children grow and become more active, food needs grow with them.

Like adults, children need a balance of all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) for each meal — and even each snack.

How does each macronutrient affect our immune health?

Protein builds antibodies and helps the body to recover and repair. It also boosts immunity by promoting an important immune function called glutathione synthesis.

Here is the ideal daily amount of protein for children:

  • 4-8 years: 19 grams
  • 9-13 years 34 grams
  • 14-8 years: 46 grams (girls) + 52 grams (boys)

Fats help protect cell health and overall brain health. Without proper brain health, hormones become imbalanced and children become more susceptible to attention and mental health struggles.

Here is the ideal daily amount for children:

  • 300-500 mg of both EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids (2-3 servings a week of wild-caught cold-water fish provides this)
  • Saturated fat (no recommended amount) also supports overall health. Butter, dairy, meat, eggs, coconut oil, and avocado contain this.

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our bodies. Instead of a daily amount in grams, keeping the amount to ¼ to ⅓ of each meal will provide adequate amounts. Fruits and vegetables are the greatest carbohydrates to directly aid our immune systems. It is important to also choose fiber-containing complex carbohydrates to proliferate health-promoting bacteria in the gut, decrease blood sugar spikes, and aid in overall digestion.

Water is not a macronutrient, but as far as our bodies are concerned, it might as well be one! This is one of our best allies in detoxifying our systems from pathogens and other toxins. Children should drink 8 ounces of water multiplied by their age daily. As their activity increases, so should their water intake.

READ MORE >>> Childhood Nutrition Ages 6-12 & Ages 13-18

A Note on Sugar

Yes, the tasty (sometimes) bribing tool we are all familiar with. Unfortunately, sugar depletes our immune health. It slows the metabolism, causes inflammation — which taxes the immune system — and even shrinks the hippocampus in the brain. It is linked to fatigue, learning difficulties, anxiety, ADHD, blood sugar imbalances, obesity, and depression.

Even though it is very tempting to use sugar as a reward, this can cause a child to perpetually view healthy foods as a punishment and sugary treats as a reward. This can also lead to dependence on sweets, leading to further health issues in a child’s life such as blood sugar imbalances and obesity.

At home, consider fruit as a more nutritious alternative to a sugary dessert. When children inevitably eat out with friends and may have special treats on vacations, consider the 80-20 rule: 80% healthy eating and 20% special treats. This way, there can be room to join in the sugary fun every once and a while.

Meals That Support Children’s Immune Systems

A girl eating a meal that supports her immunity nutritionally.

Now that we roughly know the healthy amounts, what can meals look like?

For breakfasts, it is best to prioritize high amounts of protein and healthy fats to encourage satiety and the proper fuel for children to start their day energized.

For lunches and dinners, plates should consist of ¼ protein, ¼ carbohydrate (which can include starchy vegetables), and ½ non-starchy vegetables. This ensures the best balance of antioxidants with energy from complex carbohydrates and restorative strength from protein.

To ensure healthy blood sugar levels throughout the day, consider incorporating all three macronutrients in children’s snacks.

Recipes to Ensure Optimal Nutrition

Overwhelmed by all the homemade-to-order suggestions? Here are some simple options for you to consider:

Lunch + Dinner Options

MORE RECIPES >>> NTI Curated Recipes

As you prepare your child to fight the many battles that come in life, setting their immune systems up for success can prepare their hearts for the greater wins to come.

More on childhood health…

Optimal health through nutrition throughout various stages of life is covered in depth in our Nutrition Therapist Master Certification course, Life Cycles and Healthy Aging.  If you’re interested in an in-depth education in holistic nutrition, get in touch with our admissions team today!

NTI believes in supporting optional health through nutrition education.  For other great articles about optimal childhood health through nutrition please check out our Childhood Nutrition blog category.

About the author: Lisa (Driscoll) Lopes is a certified Nutrition Therapist Master through NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. Having studied journalism and vocal performance in undergrad, she enjoys using her voice to share the benefits of living a holistic, integrated lifestyle in writing. You can find more of her writing in the Baltimore Sun, Classical Singer Magazine, Capital News Service, and FOCUS blog.

Image Sources:

  1. Photo by Alex Green on Pexels
  2. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels
  3. Photo by Yan Krukau on Pexels

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