11 July 2024

Graphic designer Sirintira Tonvorakul started to worry after reading about the recent surge in Covid-19 cases amongst children in the country.

In addition to keeping up on personal hygiene practices such as always keeping hands clean, masking up correctly “to ensure that it covers the nose and the mouth” and practicing social distancing, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter started stocking on vitamin C, preparing healthier home-cooked meals and making sure that her only daughter doesn’t stay up late.

“I believe that healthy eating and sleep are very important in helping us maintain a healthy body. I’m trying to cut down on takeaways and cook healthy and delicious dishes, things like spicy chicken soup (tom yum kai) for my daughter. I hope this helps boost immunity and keeps her healthy during the pandemic,” says Mrs. Sirintira, 50.

According to data from the Department of Disease Control, the cumulative number of coronavirus cases in children between the ages of 0 to 18 years in Thailand for the period April 1 to August 11, 2021, reached nearly 92,000. In particular, 18,879 new confirmed cases in children were reported, between August 5-11.

Unlike the first wave of the pandemic, entire households are now becoming infected with the coronavirus and this is more likely to impact children too. Once one person has contracted the virus, virtually all members of the family have been infected this time around. This has prompted parents to look for information on protecting their children and steps to take in efforts to ward off infections.

“Data from global studies suggest that children may be less vulnerable to coronavirus, but they can still be infected. But children are rarely the cause of the virus spreading in households,” Achiraya Kamchan, a researcher at Mahidol University’s Institute of Nutrition, says.

“Children with Covid-19 would experience milder symptoms than adults. They may have a cold, fever, and mild or continuous cough. Many of them recover from the virus without showing any symptoms at all. However, children who have the virus can still infect each other and adults even if they don’t have any symptoms.”

She adds that children with Covid-19 are mostly affected in their upper airways so they get cold-like features rather than the virus managing to access their lower airways like the lungs and causing pneumonia and other life-threatening conditions adults patients may have.

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A healthy, balanced diet keeps infections at bay

As yet, no Covid-19 vaccines are approved for kids under the age of 12. So, strengthening their immune system is the best weapon to fight against the coronavirus.

“We can bolster their immune systems with healthy nutrition. It’s important for families to ensure that kids get a nutritious diet during the health crisis in order to keep them healthy,” says Ms. Archiraya.

A person’s immune system needs to function well for the body to stay healthy. And diets influence the way our immune systems work. A healthy diet can help support a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of infections, she adds.

The expert says maintaining a balanced and varied diet that incorporates whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein while restricting processed foods and refined sugar would help improve the immune system.

“Parents should avoid prepared foods that contain high amounts of sugar, salts, and fats that can increase the risk of becoming overweight and developing obesity. Children with underlying health conditions are at higher risk of developing severe Covid-19,” Ms. Achiraya says.

She adds parents can boost their children’s immune systems with a diet rich in antioxidants like vitamin C or zinc and anti-inflammatory foods such as yogurt.

Lean meat like chicken and whole foods that include grains, beans, nuts, and seeds such as cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds contain the amino acids needed to fuel the immune system, and a diet high in zinc content helps increase the production of white blood cells which defend against invaders. Fish meanwhile contains healthy fat like omega-3 which can support the immune system.

“Nuts are filling and delicious. A Thai dessert mung bean in syrup (Thua khiao tom namtan) is easy to cook. They make perfect snacks for kids,” Ms. Achiraya.

Eggs and milk products are also good as they contain vitamin D, which can strengthen the immune system.

Sun exposure is the best source of vitamin D. However, Thai people are at risk of vitamin D insufficiency, despite living in a location near the equator where sunlight is available year-round, Ms. Achiraya says, referring to a study on vitamin D deficiency in Thailand. Diet, environmental factors, and lifestyle are to blame for the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among Thai people, according to the study.

“Some food products that don’t naturally contain vitamin D are fortified with this nutrient,” she says.

Parents should consider feeding children the rainbow for better health by increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables in their diets, she adds. Citrus fruits, guavas, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, and tomatoes are rich in vitamin C.

Studies show that a deficiency or insufficiency of nutrients essential to immune function that include vitamins D, C, and zinc can affect immune response and health, the researcher notes.

Beta-carotene which the body converts to vitamin A also plays a key role in enhancing immune function, according to her. People can obtain the nutrient from green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and orange and yellow fruits and vegetables including carrots, pumpkins, ripe mangos, and papaya.

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However, it’s not easy to convince kids to eat more veggies.

“Be creative. And make veggies fun and familiar to the kids. Getting them involved in helping to prepare meals could also make them more likely to eat healthier foods,” Ms. Achiraya says.

She advises parents to make kid-friendly veggie recipes and pair new options with their favorite meals. For instance, they can use cookies cutters to make veggies into fun shapes. Another idea is to add sliced shiitake (hed hom) into an omelet or diced carrots to fried rice.

Mushrooms are a good source of protein and other vitamins and minerals. They also contain beta-glucan, an important substance useful in helping boost the body’s immune system.

Carrots and broccoli can be prepared as batter-fried vegetables, served as a side dish – something that kids definitely love too.

For main dishes, she recommends spicy chicken Thai soup (tom yum kai) or chicken stir-fried with holy basil (pad kaprao kai), noting that holy basil is a herbal immunity booster that can help keep infections at bay.

“Parents can tone down the spiciness a bit. That should make the dishes more palatable for kids,” Ms. Achiraya says.

Yogurt is also a good immunity booster as it is loaded with probiotics and good bacteria that fight and stop the build-up of bad bacteria.

She says parents should encourage their kids to adopt a healthy lifestyle by engaging them in simple exercise at home, which is a great way to improve their mood and sleep, as well as help them relax during the pandemic.

“Sleep is when bodies regenerate, so helping your kids maintain a healthy sleep routine is essential for immune function,

“So, a healthy, balanced diet and healthy lifestyle factors like enough sleep, regular exercise, and low stress could aid in fighting against infections,” Ms. Achiraya says.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Sukhumaporn Laiyok