The human body is amazingly adaptive, and when the proper nutrition is not provided, it will compensate. This can lead people to feel perfectly healthy, because their bodies have diverted nutrients to critical systems. However, in truth their bodies are suffering. Weaker cardiac muscles, plaque in the arteries, fatty livers and high blood sugar levels can all be overlooked until they become catastrophic. At no time is this more true than in childhood and adolescence, when the human body is laying the foundation that will stay with them for their entire lives.
One of the largest health concerns is poor nutrition during childhood and adolescence- the period when it is the most crucial. Poor nutrition during early development can lead the body to adapt in unhealthy ways, causing lifelong health problems.
Nearly 1 in 3 children in America is overweight or obese, is consuming too little calcium and far too much sugar. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, nutrition is important to physical and mental development. Here’s what children need in their diets, no matter what the age.
During this stage, milk breast milk or formula will provide practically every nutrient needed in the first year of life. The two major concerns are that breast feeding mothers maintain a healthy diet, as recommended by their obstetrician, pediatrician or family doctor, and that parents using formula avoid those that are high in sugar. Carbohydrates are of little importance to an infant when compared to their need for fats and proteins, and have the potential to lead to lifelong health issues, such as Type II diabetes.
At around six months, when most babies are ready to start solid foods, nutrient rich offerings like iron-fortified infant cereal, pureed fruits, vegetables and meats can provide a healthy boost to your child’s diet. Fortified cereals and meats can provide babies with the iron and zinc that breast milk may not provide enough of. These deficiencies can be less of an issue for formula fed babies, but that is no reason to hold off on phasing into baby foods.
Once your child is ready to start eating food, do not avoid fats. A healthy amount of fat is important for brain and nerve development. As each of our bodies are different, there are exceptions, and if your pediatrician recommends restricting fats, then they likely have good reason for it.
Toddlers & Preschoolers
Toddlers and young children can be as fickle with their food as they are with their emotions. Their appetites may be huge one day, and non-existent the next. This is perfectly normal, and as long as their options are healthy and varied, they will get what they need. The real trouble can be getting them to eat more than just chicken fingers. As tough as it may be, it is very important that young children vary their diets enough to acquire a variety of nutrients. Chicken fingers may taste great, but contrary to popular belief, you can have too much of a good thing. Most foods, no matter how healthy you may believe them to be, have some chemicals, proteins, fats, etc. that can be problematic when ingested in large amounts. Yet another reason to vary your diet, and your child’s.
Calcium is especially important in early development and adolescence. As a supplement company, we receive several phone calls a week from older individuals who are concerned about their calcium levels and bone strength. The sad truth is that taking large doses of calcium later in life does very little to compensate for the bone density that we lose. In fact, the ability to absorb calcium diminishes over time, largely due to low magnesium and vitamin D. The best time to prevent conditions such as osteoporosis is early in life, well before it occurs to anyone to think about it. Children may not believe or care that milk helps to build strong bones and teeth, but parents need to know better. Dairy products are the best source of calcium, followed closely by green, leafy vegetables. For the allergic and lactose-intolerant, or those who just don’t like milk, lactose-free milk, tofu, soy milk, tofu, calcium fortified orange juice and cereals are some alternatives. Maintaining healthy levels of calcium early can drastically increase your child’s quality of life in their later years. This is especially true for women, who suffer from higher instances of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Fiber is another key component to early childhood development. Even in the face of staunch resistance, parents must encourage fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Fiber can help prevent heart disease and it aids in digestion
Most children do not get enough calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, or vitamins D and E. Sources of these nutrients are listed below:
Fiber: Whole grains, fruits and vegetables
Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, wheat germ oil and vegetable oils
Calcium: Low fat and fat free dairy products, rhubarb, spinach, collard greens, and sardines
Magnesium: Whole grains, nuts, pumpkin seeds, and white, black, navy beans
Potassium: Legumes, potatoes, dried apricots, beet greens, prune juice and dairy products
Vitamin D: Sunlight, intestinal bacteria, fortified dairy and juice, cod liver oil, salmon, tuna and mackerel
This is when snacks can become an issue for children. Now that they are in school, they have more choices in what they eat. School cafeterias are often shockingly unhealthy, and candy, chips, snack cakes and ice cream bars are all readily at hand. Areas that are often too sufficient are sugars, sodium and saturated fats. The body needs carbs, fats and sodium, but each should be eaten in moderation. Too much can lead to serious health problems. If you have the time, packing a lunch for your child is often the best option, but going over the lunch menu and encouraging them to select healthier choices can help.
The most important step you can take in ensuring good health for your child is to educate them. Rather than giving a lecture, it may be easier to present the matter as giving them more responsibility in their own lives. This is the age when children are gaining a better understanding for the world around them, and beginning to strive for more independence. Rather than fighting your child on their diet, you may be able to make them an ally in your mission to keep them healthy and happy.
Teens and Preteens
Puberty. There are so many issues that come with that word. Fortunately for us, a pubescent child’s needs are fairly straightforward. They need everything that we do, only more of it. As puberty begins, young people need to increase their calories to compensate for the rapid growth and developing bodies that accompany these years. The main issue is that these calories should not be coming from fast food. Fast food restaurants offer few nutrients in their food, and they add large amounts of salt and sugar to everything to, quite frankly, make their food more addictive. This food will help your youths grow horizontally much better than it helps them grow vertically. Even for skinny teens, it is still laying the groundwork for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and vitamin deficiencies.
Adolescence is also when people start to become conscious of their body image, particularly their weight. This can lead to eating disorders and unhealthy behaviors. If a child or young adult is restricting their caloric intake, parents may need to address this issue through discussion or counselling.
Even more so than with children, calcium intake is critical during adolescence. The majority of the bone mass that we maintain throughout our lives is built between the preteen years and early twenties. More than at any other point in their lives, proper calcium intake is critical at this time.
There are some minor gender difference at this time. For instance, teenage girls require more iron than boys to replace what is lost during menstruation. Most males require slightly more protein than females, as most males have a larger musculoskeletal frame.
Most people are dehydrated, and they don’t even realize it. Water doesn’t just make up over half of a child’s body weight, it is also needed to regulate electrolyte levels and keep the body functioning properly. It’s a good idea to give your child water throughout the day, not just when they’re thirsty. If your child does not like the taste, you can add a bit of lemon, lime, cucumber and/or mint for flavor. However, you should avoid high sugar juices and sodas. The sugar levels in these are toxic, and that is not an exaggeration. The damage that high sugar beverages do to our bodies would take up an entire article to describe.
Babies generally don’t need water during the first year of life.
Fruits and vegetables are good sources of water.
Kids should drink more water when sick, in hot weather and when physically active.
One Last Tip
Listen to your doctor. Every body is different, and each of us is afflicted by different genetic conditions, microorganisms, living conditions and injuries. Writing a doctor’s orders off as being bad advice seems to be a more and more common occurrence these days. While medicine is often hindered by an emphasis on treating symptoms rather than the root cause, it’s still the case that your doctor or your child’s will have the best understanding of what is going on in their body. If a doctor recommends avoiding a certain nutrient, it is far better to heed that recommendation than to follow an article online recommending said nutrient. Healthcare professionals have access to your and your child’s lab test results, medical history, vital signs, symptoms and examination findings. Nobody online will be able to match their knowledge of the subject matter, and since the subject matter here is your child, it is best to defer to the experts!