The time from birth to adulthood is one of growth, development, maturation and activity. Nutritional needs of children vary with their age, activity levels, health status, physical size and current rate of growth. Different processes require different nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids and protein are crucial for brain development in babies and toddlers, iron is particularly important when girls commence their menstrual cycle and energy needs will be greater during periods of rapid growth.
Nutritional habits, once formed, can be hard to break. A child who develops a sweet tooth and dislike for vegetables will find it much harder to maintain a healthy diet through their later life than a child raised with a balanced diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy. The fact that a baby or toddler rejects a food on the first few occasions it is served does not necessarily indicate a dislike for the food, but more commonly a fear of new foods, or a confusion over the unfamiliarity of the new item. The role of parents and caregivers can not be understated in children’s nutrition. Children learn from observation and when very young have no choice but to eat what is provided to them. If a child observes their parents eating a dinner of potato chips while lounging on the couch it is highly unlikely they will be happy to sit at the dinner table and eat vegetables. Toddlers and young children tend to mimic their parents and strive to be like them, copying their patterns of speech, body language and eating habits. There would be few parents who have not had their toddler repeat private comments in public, showing that the child has observed, learnt and reproduced their parent’s behaviour (often with rather embarrassing consequences). The same is true for eating habits, food preferences and diet.
As children get older, they will be influenced by the media and their peers. In terms of child nutrition this is generally not a good influence. While advertisements promoting salty, fat laden fast foods are common and catchy, you aren’t likely to see your local farmer creating hip new ads to sell his apples. When children develop the idea that some foods are trendy or popular and others are boring, or they are teased for eating healthy items, they are likely to choose poor quality foods over nutritious alternatives. Trying to fit in is a normal part of pre-teen and adolescent development and should be considered when trying to get a child to maintain a healthy diet. Trying to get a child at this age to convert from a poor diet to a nutritious one can be very difficult and trying to force changes is nigh on impossible. Good habits must be established early.
One thing that is commonly over-looked in child nutrition is fluid intake. This is particularly important for children who are often busy running, jumping and playing and who often forget to stop and take a drink break. While infants and older babies can source all their fluid requirements from breast milk or formula, it is important to ensure that after weaning children have access to plenty of quality fluids, primarily water, although milk and fruit juice can be included in their diet as well.
Without a balanced and varied diet of vegetables, fruits, grains, protein sources and calcium, iron and vitamin D sources growing children are at risk of:
- Poor growth and development
- Learning difficulties
- Behavioural problems
- Type II diabetes
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Developmental bone problems like Rickett’s
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Gastrointestinal upsets
- Recurrent colds, flus etc
- And a variety of other ailments.
A balanced diet is rich in vitamins and minerals is crucial for the molecular functions carried out constantly in the body’s cells and tissues. If healthy food choices are limited in the diet, the demand for energy will result in the consumption of calorie dense, nutrient poor foods. This in turn results in vitamin and mineral deficiencies which compromise cell and tissue function and lead to ill health. If you are interested in studying a child nutrition course read more here.
Listen to Jill Castle, a paediatic dietician talk at TedX about her own experiences in feeding her own child!