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Food as Medicine

The seasons are about to change, school has resumed, and it’s only a matter of time before kids start getting sick. You can do your best to try to shave off those dreaded illnesses by ensuring proper nutrition and rest every day. But there’s just no avoiding it sometimes. Try not to get too stressed if your child has decreased intake when he or she is ill. It’s normal, and likely they will rebound after and make up for it by eating more of what they need for re-nourishment. Drinking adequate fluids is very important, however, as dehydration can have serious consequences. Also, adequate hydration helps the body “flush out” the bacteria, viruses, and immune factors causing symptoms.

sick child eating

For the following illnesses, here are some nutrition considerations:

Sore Throat. Eating and drinking can obviously be painful. Focus on cold, liquid foods.

  • Applesauce. Stir in quinoa for extra protein. Just cook the quinoa, let it cool, refrigerate, and stir into applesauce when your child is interested in eating.
  • Yogurt
  • Smoothies, made with yogurt, frozen fruit, and baby spinach leaves.
  • Gazpacho
  • Frozen bananas
  • Frozen fruit puree popsicles
  • Pediasure, especially if your child is on the low end of the growth chart, has other chronic medical issues, or otherwise has poor nutrition.

Diarrhea and/or Vomiting.

Gastrointestinal illnesses can occur for a variety of reasons. Likely eating or drinking will induce nausea. Hydration and electrolyte balance/replenishment are important with prolonged diarrhea and vomiting. Call the pediatrician if the vomiting or diarrhea persists longer than 24 hours. Seek medical care immediately if you see blood in the stool or emesis, and also if your child seems dehydrated. Some signs of dehydration are decreased urine output, darker colored urine, urine with a strong odor, dark circles under the eyes, lack of tears when crying, “tenting” of the skin (when you pull it up it doesn’t retract quickly), dry mouth, and lethargy. The best you can do is to encourage drinking fluids and eating small amounts as able. Focus on easily digested foods that are low in fat.

  • The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast). These foods are easily digested, and the bananas and applesauce contain soluble fiber, which absorbs fluids in the gut and promotes a bulkier, more formed stool. This counteracts loose, watery diarrhea.
  • Congee is used to treat diarrhea, and versions of it are used in African, Indian, and Asian cultures. It’s basically rice that has been cooked for a long time with extra water so that it boils into a soupy mixture that is easily digestible .
  • Offer electrolyte replacement beverages, such as those discussed in my exercise hydration post. A great, natural option is called Recharge and can be found at Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores.
  • Some studies have shown improvement in duration of gastrointestinal symptoms with taking probiotics. See my probiotics blog for more recommendations.

Common cold or flu. Warming, soothing foods are usually best accepted.

  • Soups or stews. Take advantage of the opportunity to get some quality nutrition in these meals. Butternut squash soup is a good source of vitamin A, tomato soup is a good source of vitamin C, potato soup is a good source of potassium, and beef or chicken stew provides good protein.
  • Bone broth. This traditional soup is made by actually boiling bones for a prolonged time, which creates a broth full of the nutrients stored in bones. You can use bones from a whole chicken after cooking it and using the meat for another meal. Put them in a crock pot on low over night or simmer on the stove for 8-12 hours. Use the broth to make soups, noodles, congee, or drink it warmed.
  • Offer good vitamin C sources such as fresh citrus fruits.

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Exercise Hydration: What is the Right Beverage for my Child?

With so many sports beverage and enhanced water products on the market, it’s good to know when they are actually useful. Many of these products have an ingredient list quite similar to soda, which is not something you typically would give your child or athlete after a workout. However, there are circumstances where nutrient and electrolyte replacement is very important for children and teens.

Child drinking a glass of water

Carbohydrates are an important nutrient to replenish because glycogen is the fuel which gets used up from muscle and liver stores during physical activity. Electrolytes, specifically sodium, potassium, and bicarbonate are important for nerve conduction and respiration. Some amounts are expired through sweat and given off with heavy breathing that comes with intense physical activity. For these reasons, carbohydrates and electrolytes need to be “replaced” after intense, continuous workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes, and can be achieved with electrolyte replacement beverages. This would apply to long distance runners, college or elite athletes in training, and swimmers, soccer, or basketball players who are doing continuous intense cardio training for more than an hour during workouts.

However, for most people hitting the gym for an hour or so, or kids playing in team sports or outside at the playground, nutrient and electrolyte replacement can be achieved from eating a normal, well-rounded diet. Eating a balanced meal or snack within an hour after physical activity is sufficient in this case. Drinking additional sports drinks will only provide extra calories and sugar (or diet sweeteners), and often artificial food coloring.

Use this table as a guide:

Commercial (or homemade*) electrolyte replacement beverage

  • Intense continuous physical activity lasting an hour or more such as running; drink 16-32 ounces of electrolyte replacement beverage. 30 grams of carb should be consumed for every 60 minutes of intense continuous cardio, within 30 minutes of activity. Electrolyte replacement is important if intense physical activity is in extreme heat, when sweating is excessive.

Chocolate milk (carb + pro + electrolytes)

  • College or elite athletes in training for several hours per day who need a quick, small meal + electrolyte replacement during or after long workouts lasting several hours. These athletes should consult with a dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.

Coconut water

  • Natural electrolyte replacement beverage; high in potassium and lower in sodium and sugar than commercial electrolyte replacement beverages. Appropriate for moderate-high physical activity with sweating, such as spinning class, kickboxing, “boot camps”, outdoor sports in heat with continuous cardio 30-60 minutes, etc.

Water + well-rounded diet

  • As needed during and after any level of physical activity. This is all that is necessary for low or moderate physical activity such as playing outside, playing team sports, hitting the gym for 30-60 minutes, etc. A rule of thumb is 1 oz water for every 2 lbs body wt (50 oz/day for 100 lb person) daily. Increase as needed in heat or more strenuous activity.

*Recipe for homemade electrolyte replacement beverage, from Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup orange juice (not concentrate) plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups cold water

  1. In the bottom of a pitcher, dissolve the sugar and salt in the hot water.
  2. Add the juice and the remaining water; chill.

Recipe makes 1 quart.
Per 8 ounce serving, recipe provides: 50 calories, 12 grams carbohydrate, 110 mg sodium, 43 mg potassium.
Compared to original Gatorade per 8 ounce serving: 50 calories, 14 g carbohydrate, 110 mg sodium, 30 mg potassium.

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