[5 min read] Importance of childhood nutrition

Healthy eating for children does not have to be complicated. Nutritional requirements for children are like those of adults; they simply require different amounts of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Focusing on a well-balanced diet and establishing beneficial eating habits not only aids in brain and bone development and a strong immune system (1), but also has a positive influence on preventing chronic diseases and improving mental health (2).

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A child’s diet also impacts how he or she thinks, feels, and behaves, for example in social interactions, learning at school, and ability to handle stress. Some children may require more intensive nutritional care through medical nutrition therapy, involving comprehensive nutrition assessments and designing individualised diets or formulas if necessary.

Infant feeding: Getting started in life

Breastmilk or an alternate infant formula is all that babies need until around six months. However, the second half of a baby’s first year of life is a key window of opportunity to expose babies to a wide variety of food experiences, and a first chance to influence their tastes and food choices (3, 4).

Additionally, parents are encouraged to give babies potentially allergenic foods like peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, seafood, dairy, and wheat; research shows that this may help prevent food allergies in future (5). Other recommendations after children have transitioned to solids include:

  • Introducing iron-containing nutritious foods to prevent iron deficiency, including pureed meat and poultry, cooked pain tofu, and legumes/beans.
  • Avoiding juices and sugar-sweetened drinks and limiting intake of foods with added sugars to prevent tooth decay and excess weight.
  • Not adding salt to foods for infants, as infant kidneys are immature and unable to excrete excess salt.

Children and adolescents: Keeping it going

As children grow, meals and snacks should continue to reflect the dietary guidelines. Children should get lots of vegetables, fruits, grains (preferably at least half whole grains), protein (lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, soy), dairy (including lactose-free and fortified soy dairy products), and healthy oils. They should get very little sugar or saturated fat (less than 10% of their calories should be from either one), and limited sodium.

Additionally, as toddlers enter a period of slower but steady growth, their interest in eating can be unpredictable with periods of no interest in food. Regardless of whether they eat or not, they should be encouraged to join family meals and social occasions.

Feeding children nutritious food can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. If a young patient needs specialised nutrition support (for example, those diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, phenylketonuria, allergies, or faltering growth), it is beneficial to work with an Accredited Practising Dietitian to ensure your patients’ needs are met.

 

– Lynette Law, Accredited Practising Dietitian

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References

  1. Fragkou PC, Karaviti D, Zemlin M, Skevaki C. Impact of Early Life Nutrition on Children’s Immune System and Noncommunicable Diseases Through Its Effects on the Bacterial Microbiome, Virome and Mycobiome. Frontiers in Immunology. 2021;12(806).
  2. Uauy R, Kain J, Mericq V, Rojas J, Corvalán C. Nutrition, child growth, and chronic disease prevention. Annals of Medicine. 2008;40(1):11-20.
  3. van der Veek SMC, de Graaf C, de Vries JHM, Jager G, Vereijken CMJL, Weenen H, et al. Baby’s first bites: a randomized controlled trial to assess the effects of vegetable-exposure and sensitive feeding on vegetable acceptance, eating behavior and weight gain in infants and toddlers. BMC Pediatrics. 2019;19(1):266.
  4. Mura Paroche M, Caton SJ, Vereijken CMJL, Weenen H, Houston-Price C. How Infants and Young Children Learn About Food: A Systematic Review. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1046-.
  5. Chan ES, Abrams EM, Hildebrand KJ, Watson W. Early introduction of foods to prevent food allergy. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology. 2018;14(2):57.

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