Nutrition and Diet in Children
Proper nutrition between infancy and adolescence is vital to your child’s growth and development. Nutrients, such as protein, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and fat, are an essential part of any healthy diet. While children’s nutritional requirements vary depending on age, using a balanced approach that includes nutrient-dense foods from all the major food groups will provide appropriate nutrition and promote good eating habits.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Nutrition Recommendations
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a whole diet approach in which no ingredients are banned, but rather sugar, fats, and oils are used strategically in small amounts to enhance flavor in highly nutritious foods. For example, a child may be more likely to eat vegetables or salads with a small amount of dressing added. Other AAP whole diet suggestions include:
- Selecting a variety of foods from all food groups.
- Avoiding foods which are highly processed.
- Offering a variety of food experiences.
- Offering portions appropriate for the child’s age and size.
American Heart Association (AHA) Nutrition Research
The American Heart Association (AHA) sites good nutrition as a significant contributor to the delay and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Obesity is a major factor in the cardiovascular disease epidemic now facing the U.S. Because the artherosclerotic process (plaque build-up in the arteries) begins in youth, starting a consistently nutritious diet from infancy reduces the risk of heart disease, which typically culminates later in life. Research shows that as children grow, percentages of those who consume fruits and vegetables on a daily basis decline. On a given day, one third of 19-24 month olds consume no fruit, while 60% consume baked desserts.
AHA research reports adverse trends which have recently arisen in the diets of older children are:
- Reduction in the consumption of a regular breakfast
- Increase in the consumption of nutrient-poor foods, fried foods, sugar, and sweetened beverages.
- Increase in the consumption of foods prepared outside of the home.
- Increase in the percentage of daily calories from snacks.
- Increases in portion sizes per meal.
- Decrease in consumption of dairy products and high fiber fruits and vegetables.
- Increase in the consumption of potatoes, with fried potatoes being the highest percentage of vegetables consumed.
These trends have resulted in many children consuming well below the recommended daily values of essential nutrients during adolescence, while sodium intake exceeds recommended levels.
Changes in eating patterns of adolescents have contributed to:
- Excessive consumption of fat, trans-fats, saturated fat, and sugars.
- Insufficient consumption of vitamins A, D, and C, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and folic acid.
AHA recommendations for children ages 2 and older include:
- Balancing calorie intake with physical activity (60 minutes daily).
- Using nonfat or low-fat dairy products.
- Eating vegetables and fruits daily, while limiting juice intake (4-6 ounces per day for 1-6 year olds and 8-12 ounces for 7-18 year olds).
- Eating baked or broiled fish regularly.
- Using vegetable oils and margarines low in trans-fat and saturated fat rather than butter or animal fats.
- Eating whole grain cereals and breads.
- Limiting sugary foods and beverages.
- Reducing salt, especially from processed foods.
- Using recommended portion sizes found on food labels.
- Removing poultry skin before eating.
- Limiting sauces high in calories, such as Alfredo, hollandaise, and cheesy and creamy sauces.
- Using lean cuts of meat.
Nutrient-dense options include:
- Dairy: Low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheeses, and fortified soy products.
- Grains: Whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, quinoa, popcorn, and brown or wild rice.
- Protein: Seafood, poultry, lean meat, beans, peas, eggs, soy products, and unsalted seeds and nuts.
- Vegetables: Dark green, red, or orange vegetables, beans, and peas. Use a variety of fresh, canned, and frozen.
- Fruit: Use a variety of fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruit. Serve 100% juices and limit juice portions.
Because children generally have multiple nourishment sources outside of the home, education is an important factor in helping your child learn how to make good nutritional choices. Starting a healthy eating lifestyle at an early age will ensure that your child maintains optimal nutrition for a lifetime. Strategies for improving nutrition and eating habits while creating healthy lifestyles in children include:
- Limiting snacks during sedentary behavior.
- Limiting sedentary behavior to no more than 1-2 hours per day.
- Having a regular meal time, during which parents can role model good eating habits, as well as interact with children socially.
- Teaching children about food and nutrition, such as while cooking meals or grocery shopping.
- Participating in regular physical activity with your child.
- Conveying nutritional preferences to caregivers.
Dietary Supplements – Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin and mineral supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if you don’t eat a balanced diet. However, supplements can’t take the place of foods that are important for a healthy diet. Read more about the good and bad of dietary supplements.
Angela Lemond is a Registered Dietitian. Registered Dietitians are the food and nutrition experts who can translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living. RDs use their nutrition expertise to help individuals make unique, positive lifestyle changes. RDs are advocates for advancing the nutritional status of Americans and people around the world.
Maria-Paula Carrillo completed a Master Degree in Nutrition at Texas Woman’s University. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, she has been working with families from the start. She has provided services at Head Start of Greater Dallas, the Women, Infants and Children’s Program (WIC), the Neonatal ICU at Parkland Hospital, and for 7 years she was a Dietitian at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas where her focus was digestive disorders.