Magnesium Matters: Why You Should Care If Your Kids (And You) Are Getting Enough

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The last time you thought about magnesium may have been when you were forced to recognise it in the periodic table of elements but this mineral is back in the spotlight when it comes to optimal health.

Why Is Magnesium Important? 
Magnesium, akin to calcium, sodium and potassium, is a vital macro-mineral, required not in trace, but in large amounts (>100 mg / day) for essential functions in the human body. It assists over 300 chemical reactions in our cells. It is required for fundamental molecular processes like synthesis of DNA, RNA and protein as well as production and stability of our energy currency, namely, a molecule called ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate. Needless to say, magnesium is not optional but necessary for our survival and, like all essential nutrients, can be obtained from our diet. 

What's the problem?
It turns out that the modern western diet has left many of us magnesium-deficient, with potentially serious health repercussions. Kids are particularly vulnerable as their bodies are in a state of growth, busy laying the foundation for lifelong health. The good news is that, like with most nutrients, food can provide all the magnesium we need, if we know what to eat. 

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Some of magnesium's vital functions in the body, particularly relevant for children, are as follows:

1) MAGNESIUM MAKES BONES STRONG
Believe it or not, magnesium is as important as calcium and vitamin D for bone health and integrity. Magnesium allows optimal calcium absorption and retention via regulation of parathyroid and calcitonin hormones and also by regulating vitamin D metabolism, all involved in calcium balance. In one study on 63 healthy children between the ages of 4-8 years, the amounts of magnesium consumed and absorbed were key predictors of how much bone children had (1). The authors conclude, "We believe it is important for children to have a balanced, healthy diet with good sources of minerals, including both calcium and magnesium". 

2) MAGNESIUM HELPS MUSCLES DO THEIR JOB
Magnesium helps muscles relax while calcium helps them contract. Chronic muscle cramps and spasms could suggest a magnesium deficiency (2). In the same vein, magnesium helps the digestive system relax, moving food through the digestive tract efficiently. Chronic constipation could also be indicative of low magnesium levels (3)

3) MAGNESIUM HELPS US SLEEP
A recent study demonstrated that magnesium levels within cells rise and fall in a daily rhythmic pattern. This regulated fluctuation is necessary to maintain the 24 hour cellular clock of night and day, also known as the circadian rhythm, including the timing of hormone release and energy production in cells (4). This likely explains why low magnesium has been linked to poor sleep and insomnia. Adequate magnesium levels may help us function in synch with the rhythms of night and day and sleep optimally and which parent doesn't want that for themselves and their kids! 

4) MAGNESIUM KEEPS US HAPPY
Magnesium helps the body convert the amino acid tryptophan into the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is our body's happiness molecule. Serotonin affects mood, appetite, sleep, body-temperature, cognitive abilities and social behaviour. Depression, anxiety and panic attacks can occur when serotonin levels or function drop. Hence, magnesium, via its effects on serotonin function, is a critical mineral for mental health (5, 6). 

5) MAGNESIUM MAKES US SMARTER
Magnesium promotes optimal communication between neurons, nerve cells in our brains. Increasing brain magnesium has been shown to improve memory and learning in old and young rats and may prevent age-associated cognitive decline in animal models for Alzheimer's disease (7, 8). Low magnesium levels have also been observed in children with ADHD suggesting the important of this mineral in attention span (9, 10). A simple emphasis on optimal magnesium intake through kids' diets could alleviate some of the distress associated with this debilitating disorder, the diagnosis of which is alarmingly on the rise.

6) MAGNESIUM HELPS WOUND HEALING
Platelets are cellular components of blood that promote coagulation and wound healing while preventing excessive bleeding. In a recent seminal study, magnesium was shown both in animals and human patients to be important for the production and function of platelets and proper coagulation and wound healing (11). As kids run around and get scrapes and cuts, pay attention to excessive bleeding, which may be sign of a magnesium deficiency. If so, talk to your doctor. 

7) MAGNESIUM PREVENTS TYPE 2 DIABETES
Several studies in humans have demonstrated a link between low magnesium and elevated type II diabetes risk. Specifically, magnesium-rich foods can lower ones risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if one is obese. Sadly, as type 2 diabetes becomes more common in children, paying attention to food-based magnesium intake could be a viable approach to minimise the risk of this debilitating disease (12). 

As if the above functions weren't enough, magnesium also regulates blood pressure, heart health and may play a role in cancer prevention. Bottom line. Magnesium matters.

The recommended daily intake of magnesium for adults is in the 300 - 400 mg, with women requiring less than men. Up to 50% of Americans don't meet their daily magnesium requirements. Kids need less, 80 mg per day between ages 1-3 and 130 mg per day between ages 4-8. 

Magnesium-rich, kid-friendly foods, from highest to lowest magnesium (in mg) per serving size are listed below. Make sure your kids get a few of these each day and you're good to go! As you can see, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables contain the highest amounts of magnesium. 

Coconut water
1 cup = 60 mg
Almond Butter
1 tablespoon = 44 mg
Whole wheat bread
2 slices = 46 mg
Yoghurt
8 oz = 42 mg
Spinach
1/4 cup cooked = 39 mg
Cashews
9 nuts = 37 mg
Banana
1 medium = 32 mg
Black beans
1/4 cup = 30 mg
Oatmeal
1/2 cup = 27 mg
Edamame
1/4 cup = 25 mg
Milk
1 cup = 25 mg
Peanut butter
1 tablespoon = 25 mg
Raw cacao
1 tablespoon = 25 mg
Avocado
1/2 cup cubed = 22 mg

As with most nutrients, if you rely on whole food, you can't overdose on magnesium as your kidneys will excrete the excess. High levels of magnesium have been observed with supplementation which have their own set of problems. Stick with real food and you're sorted. 

RECIPE

To help you and your family get your magnesium in the most delicious way, I created these Vroom Vroom Energy Bites. Take one bite and you'll wonder how something that tastes so good can be so good for you. Each ball contains 33 mg of magnesium! My 3 year old and the rest of the family, for that matter, are addicted, and in this case, we are glad that more is more. 

Vroom Vroom Energy Balls
Toddler, Kid, Adult

Yield
12-14 balls
Each bite contains 33 mg of Mg or 41% and 25% of the daily required intake of Mg for 1-3 and 4-8 year olds, respectively. 

Ingredients
1/2 cup almond butter
3/4 cup oats
1 tablespoon raw cacao powder
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon flax seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon (preferably Ceylon)

Method
Place all ingredients in a food processor. Blend well until the oats are broken down into granules and the ingredients are well combined into a crumbly dough. Shape the mixture into 3/4 inch diameter balls between the palms of your hands. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour to set. These will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks in an airtight container but they will most definitely not last that long, if my tot's obsession with them is any indication. You can also freeze them for longer enjoyment. 

* First two images courtesy of Shutterstock

 














 



 

 

 



 

 

Supercharge your kid's gut health with the potato

If our hunter-gatherer ancestors had smartphones, they would hopefully have been as obsessed with taking pictures of their food as we are. We would then be able to look through the archives and quickly see that their diets were dominated by fibre. "Let's grab a bunch of leaves and tubers and go"! 

I'm grateful we are blessed with more culinary abundance in modern times (leaving us with more than enough of a caloric surplus to snap pics of our food and a few other things) but if there's one thing the modern diet could use more of, it's fibre. It is believed that hunter-gatherers consumed north of 80 g of fibre a day and the average Western diet is at around 15 g at best.

Why the fuss around fibre?

Dietary fibre, found in plants, has two important functions. Insoluble fibre bulks up our stool and ensures digestive regularity. Soluble fibre, on the other hand, serves as food for the bacteria in our guts, who ferment it and produce a host of beneficial compounds that positively impact digestion, nutrient absorption and our overall vitality*. In fact, scientific evidence now suggests that our microbial ecosystem, known as our 'microbiome', influences myriad aspects of our health, including immune function, metabolism and even our mood! 

Resistant starch - a very special kind of bacterial grub

In addition to soluble and insoluble fibre, resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by our stomach or small intestine (hence, resistant) but serves as fodder for the good bugs inhabiting our colon. Based on a spate of recent scientific research, resistant starch is emerging as a superfood for our microbiome, functioning like soluble fermentable fibre and having far reaching effects on our health and wellbeing. This is where the humble spud comes in. 

Cooked and cooled potatoes have resistant starch

Potatoes contain resistant starch in the form of amylose. Cooking renders this starch digestible by us but when cooled, the starch becomes resistant to digestion and can instead be enjoyed by our bacterial friends in the colon. These bacteria chow down on the resistant starch found in that creamy potato salad and produce a very important molecule called butyrate and this, ladies and gentleman, is where the magic is at (I knew we'd get there eventually phew).

Butyrate whaaaaaaa?

Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid produced by bacterial fermentation of resistant starch. It turns out that the cells lining our colon LOVE butyrate! So the good bacteria eat the resistant starch, spew out butyrate which then nourishes our colon and you know what they say, happy colon happy health!

Here are 5 wonderful things butyrate does for us:

1) Butyrate feeds the cells lining our colon, promoting a strong intestinal barrier between our gut and our circulation. A robust and leak-proof gut lining keeps toxins out of our blood stream. 

2) Butyrate activates anti-inflammatory T cells in the gut in mice. This could be the mechanism by which resistant starch is thought to be protective against colon cancer and other inflammatory bowel diseases although well designed human trials remain to be conducted. 

3) Butyrate is absorbed into the blood stream and exerts anti-inflammatory effects on distal organs like the liver. 

4) Butyrate improves insulin sensitivity, metabolic rate and lowers fat storage - in animal studies, butyrate reduced weight gain and increased metabolic rate in response to an unhealthy, high fat diet diet. In a small human trial, resistant starch + protein increased satiety and reduced fat buildup. 

5) Butyrate reduces the amount of DNA adducts (mutations) formed upon consumption of large quantities of red meat, acting as a potential anti-cancer agent.  

So there you have it folks. The humble spud, cooked, cooled and eaten just like our ancestors would have done, offers rich fodder for our bacterial inhabitants, who then go on and make wonderful compounds like butyrate that do all sorts of amazing things for our health. 

I wouldn't blame you if all you want to eat from now is potato salad but I want to close with my usual message. Diversity and moderation in diet are key! A recent study showed that high doses of resistant starch in mice led to weight loss but also increased anxiety! Whether or not that will translate to humans is unclear but I think the moral of the story is simple. Eat cooked and cold potatoes as part of your diet. They're great for you. Eat other things too. 

Let's get cooking!

*It still blows my mind to think that we are staggeringly outnumbered by bacteria in our own bodies with about 10 bacterial cells for every 1 human cell. An interesting thought when it comes to the existential question of 'who we really are' and more importantly, 'WHO'S really eating when we're chowing down on that cheese burger'?! 

RECIPE

Potato Salmon Salad
Baby led weaning, 12 months+ 

Loosely inspired by the traditional salade nicoise, this cold potato, veggie and salmon salad with a honey sweetened vinaigrette was the first salad toddler EVER ate so I had to share it here. This versatile option allows the incorporation of cooked and cooled potatoes into your kid's diet in a healthy and fun way. You can serve it with one of the suggested dressings as a traditional salad or as finger food with a side of our favourite hummus or any veggie dip your family loves. 

Yield
2 toddler servings

Ingredients
For the salad
4 oz salmon filet, preferably wild
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt to taste
6 small waxy potatoes (like new potatoes)
16 French green beans (haricots verts), ends trimmed
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 small cucumber, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
2 small radish, finely sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon chopped parsley (optional)

For the dressing
Option 1: Tahini Honey

1 small clove garlic crushed (optional)
1 tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1-2 teaspoons honey depending on sweetness desired (skip for babies under 12 months)
salt and pepper to taste

Option 2: Honey Dijon
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1.5 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons honey depending on sweetness desired (skip for babies under 12 months)
salt and pepper to taste

Method
Preheat the oven to 375 F / 180 C. 

Season the salmon with salt and paprika and cook in the preheated oven for 18 minutes until flaking. Finish with a 2 minute broil on high heat. Remove and set aside to cool. 

While the salmon is cooking, cook the potatoes until knife-tender either by boiling, steaming or using my favourite method, a pressure cooker (the low amount of water required and quick cooking ensures optimal preservation of nutrients). Allow the potatoes to cool. 

Steam the green beans until tender. Set aside to cool. 

Peel and slice the cooled potatoes and flake the salmon. Arrange in a bowl with the remaining veggies and garnish with freshly chopped parsley if your kids will tolerate it. Serve with the dressing on the side or mixed in, depending on preference. Feel free to add other veggies (avocados, peppers, carrots) and even a hard boiled egg to up the protein ante. Makes for a great lunch box option as well.