Nutrition for kids: A complete guide
Nutrition for kids: Healthy nutrition when being young is as important as paying attention to your diet when being an adult. Especially at a young age, the brain undergoes paramount changes which require adequate nutrition for kids. Here we show you how a healthy eating lifestyle for your child could look like and highlight its importance since proper nutrition for kids was found to have a pronounced effect on intelligence and cognition in later life stages.
Nutrition for kids: The Basics
Nutrition for kids should look similar healthy adult nutrition. To successfully start a healthy diet, we repeatedly are bombarded by programmes on the web. However, a healthy lifestyle is truly not as restrictive as most people think at first. Sufficient knowledge about the ingredients we consume is the first step in adjusting our diet to be healthy and nutritious, reducing the risk of becoming overweight. Adults should concentrate on consuming the following foods:
- Grain foods (mostly whole grain) with a high content of fiber
- Vegetables and legumes/beans
- Dairy products (low fat)
- Lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds
- Large amounts of water
- Occasionally: Alcohol or soft drinks in small amounts
- Avoid Processed foods if possible (these are foods with a high calorie count and a low nutritional value)
It is advised to consume a variety of foods within each group of foods listed above. Only eating meat and no vegetables will not suffice as your body will miss the nutrients coming from the plants in the vegetables such as vitamins and potassium (helps regulate blood pressure).
Nutrition for kids: Differences in babies, toddlers, kids and teenagers
Nutrition for kids should be increasingly adjusted to the parents’ diet. Nevertheless, at a young age, it is advised to provide your child with a diet, slightly different from yours.
Under the age of five, fiber intake should be limited. Even though a good amount of fiber can have various health benefits and prevents you from shooting over your calorie count, it should not be consumed in abundance when looking at nutrition for kids.
At a young age, growth and development is the most important aspect of health. To ensure the developing body gets all its nutrients, nutrition for kids should consist of a diet rich in good fats. Whilst for adults, a rather low-fat diet combined with a high fiber diet is beneficial, the nutrition for kids requires a large number of unsaturated fats for healthy growth and development of your child. At the same time, a high fiber intake will fill your child up to quickly which at first glance might seem a good thing when it comes to preventing overweight. Even though this is the case, such diets should not be followed.
Once consumed the fiber, the kid will feel so full, it cannot consume other important nutrients anymore. A large number of good fats, on the other hand, will ensure your child feels full after the meal just like if it was to consume fiber, but with the benefit of promoting development and getting all the required nutrients. Especially calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth. Milk is a calcium-rich nutrient; reduced-fat milk should be avoided under the age of two due to the high growth rate and increased energy requirements of the child. To obtain sufficient amounts of vitamins, nutrition for kids should rely on consuming fruit and vegetables between meals with a low amount of fiber, whereas adults should consume the same with a higher content of fiber.
Nutrition for kids: Which foods are good for brain development?
The food we consume does not only affect our physique. The brain, like the rest of the body, is able to absorb a number of nutrients we ingest and can, therefore, influence the course of brain development. As the brain develops most in the young ages, special attention should be paid to an adequate nutrition of kids. Products which contain a lot of protein and good fats are essential here to boost brain power.
Nutrition for kids: Protein
Protein is a vital macronutrient for successful brain development. As the most fundamental neuronal connections are made in early life stages, parents should make proper nutrition for kids a priority. Proteins, when digested, are converted into amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins. Here we distinguish between essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. The latter, the body can produce itself. In the case of the essential amino acids, however, the right proteins need to be consumed coming from a diet, which is rich in complete protein (“complete” referring to all nine essential amino acids contained in adequate proportion). Animal products such as meat, fish or dairy are all rich in complete protein. Also, some vegetable products contain complete protein such as soy, quinoa, and beans.
Nutrition for kids: Amino Acids
The child’s brains need amino acids to synthesize important neurotransmitter. Those neurotransmitters (the most known being serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline) not only regulate the well-being of any human being but also ensures brain cells to communicate with each other properly. At birth, despite all brain cells have already been formed, a connection between them has yet to be established. It is those neurotransmitters which allow brain cells to communicate with each other. For the well-being of the child, the right amounts of neurotransmitters have to be present in the brain. Serotonin helps the child sleep, whereas noradrenaline contributes to the child staying alert.
Nutrition for kids: Fat
The right fats form the most important part of nutrition for kids. But first, we have to be aware of the different fats which exist. Depending on the fat’s structure, they can be beneficial or detrimental for brain development. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), saturated fats and trans-fats cause heart diseases and should not be consumed in large amounts. These kinds of fats do not have a double bond in their chemical structure (hydrogen atoms have been added) and are therefore solid even at room temperature. Examples of products containing these fats include animal meat, palm oil, processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, bacon) and dairy products (butter, cheese, milk etc.). The healthy fats are the unsaturated fats, which contain at least one double bond in their chemical structure. They are generally liquid at room temperature. The AHA recommends a diet rich in either monounsaturated fats (fats with only one double bond) or polyunsaturated fats (more than one double bond). Typical foods are nuts, olives, avocados, salmon or vegetable oils. These fats are not only beneficial for your heart but also will they contribute to a healthy brain development.
Since a 60% of your total brain weight consists of fat, it is undeniable the macronutrient also plays a vital role in brain function. In the case for nutrition for kids, the total daily calories should come primarily from good fats since fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E & K can only be absorbed in a “fatty” environment. Another advantage of a fat-rich diet is increased satiety. As 1 gram of fat is more calorie-dense than 1 gram of protein/carbohydrate, it leads us to stop eating faster. This prevents overeating and obesity.
One unsaturated fat is especially important when it comes to building cell membranes in the brain and is the most prevalent fatty acid in the brain:
The essential fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (in short: DHA).
An intact cell membrane is essential for fast information processing and ensures healthy brain functioning. Even in seniors with mild memory problems, taking DHA supplement for a year helped support healthy memory and reaction time.
The message is that a diet rich in good fats, the preferred nutrition for kids, not only helps children but people from all age groups maintain a functioning brain.
Nutrition for kids and neurocognitive development
When the brain is developing in early years of life, a strict genetic program is followed. This program can be altered by environmental factors, an important one being nutrition. The food we ingest can even have a direct effect on gene expression, which will ultimately determine which proteins are produced. If the adequate nutrition for kids is not applied, its genes might not produce the necessary proteins leading to problems in cognition. The timing plays an important role in this case. Between 3-4 weeks after conception, for instance, a deficiency in folic acid can lead to a defect in the formation of the neural tube. This structure is crucial for the development of the brain and the spinal chord at an early stage and when formed incorrectly can lead to severe cognitive deficits. Especially the first 2 years of life, in which the brain growth is rapid, children are most sensitive to food deficiencies.
Nutrition for kids and autism
The Specific carbohydrate diet
This diet was first designed for patients suffering from intestinal diseases but has now been found to reduce symptoms in kids suffering from autism. Kids with autism regularly experience issues with their intestine due to fewer types of bacteria living in their gut. Here is where the specific carbohydrate diet comes into play as it alters the cocktail of gut microbes. The diet is restrictive, however, has proven to help a lot of patients with autism. It calls for consuming carbohydrates which have a small molecular structure and are therefore directly absorbed into the bloodstream. This allows the intestinal tract to heal. Foods which are allowed and forbidden in the specific carbohydrate diet can be found here.
Nutrition for kids and ADHD
No clear evidence exists that Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is triggered by certain foods. However, suitable nutrition for kids has shown to reduce the symptoms associated with ADHD. Sticking to a particular ADHD diet has not been researched much, nevertheless getting to know the food groups which worsen or improve symptoms are a first starting point to improve the child’s quality of life.
- Balance blood sugar: Hyperactive children have been seen to consume high levels of sugar and when reducing sugar intake their symptoms improved.
- More Omega-3 fatty acids: The calming effect of those fats are good for your hyperactive child.
- Avoid Allergy Food: A strong link between food sensitivity and hyperactivity can be seen, therefore feed your child no ingredients which it could be sensitive to. The most common foods which have the potential to be allergic are milk, peanuts and eggs.
Nutrition for kids of different ages: Tips
Infants to 2-year-old children:
- In the first 6 months, infants are recommended to consume breast milk and/or infant formula. After this time, depending on development, solid foods can be introduced (fruit or vegetables)
- They should be fed several times a day as the infant’s stomach is growing rapidly at this stage.
- Solid foods should be given individually and slowly. Allergies or intolerances can be detected more easily this way.
- Allow your child to regulate its own consumption. Pay attention to hunger and fullness. A good estimate for portion size for children from 1-2 years is about one-quarter of the adult’s serving size.
Children 2-8 years old:
- Set a good example to your child by eating a balanced diet yourself
- Always combine preferred food with new food: Serving appropriate serving sizes, serving consistent meals when the child is picky, limiting food choice and positive reinforcement are all good strategies.
- Every meal should include fruits or vegetables. Apart from fresh products, frozen or canned produce is also good.
Children and Adolescents 9-18 years:
- Encourage physical activity, like walking or playing team sports
- Pay attention to healthy snacks which are low in fat, added sugar and salt. Healthy snack are: Yogurt, fruit, tuna with crackers or natural peanut butter
- Most importantly: Show your kid healthy eating to be a lifestyle rather than focusing on maintaining a certain weight. The latter might lead to disordered eating and issues with body image.
For all age groups:
- Nutrient-dense foods should be consumed: Products can have the same calories, however, provide the body with good or poor nutritional value. When we consume nutrient-rich foods, we take in calories and afterward feel full (e.g. Medium-sized avocado = 160 cal.). In the case of food with poor nutritional value, our hunger will not be satisfied even though we took in the same amount of calories (e.g. a bottle of coke = 184 cal.). As you can see in this example, soft drinks are high in calories but do not provide the body with nutrients. The goal is, therefore, to quit consuming those products or drastically reduce their consumption in both the nutrition for kids and nutrition for adults.
Nutrition for kids: 5 simple ways to improve the nutrition of a picky child:
Children are famous for wanting to consume sugary foods. This is due to the concentrated (and often refined) sugar which can directly stimulate our reward center just like a drug. However, sugar is known to impair both our cognitive skills and self-control and tthroughproviding your kid with the fast energy it should not be the primary food source. Unsaturated fats on the other hand, though energy-dense, are not as satisfying to consume, yet should be the predominant food source. To make your child consume those healthy alternatives is no easy task, especially when your child is a picky eater.
Here are some tips you could try out to make your child a healthy eater. There is a high chance he or she will find healthy foods delicious or might even refrain from eating foods with refined sugar or trans-fats:
- Be patient: Repeated exposure to one kind of food is the key. If your child does not want to eat one particular food, do not give up yet. Try serving the same food again and again. For some children, it might take longer to get used to a certain ingredient.
- Establish a routine: Always eat at around the same time and refrain from giving your children snacks (juice, cookies) in between eating hours. Better: Serve snacks after the normal food if the child remains to be hungry (most likely it is not, if the food was nutritious).
- Make it fun: Cut the food in various shapes or serve some veggies with your child’s favourite sauce as a dip. Serve foods with a variety of colours.
- Eliminate distractions: Turning of radio and television will make you and your child focus on eating. Television advertising will promote your child to seek sugary foods rather than nutritious dishes.
- Set a good example: If you as the parent follow a healthy lifestyle and eat nutritious food, your child is more likely to follow your routine.
Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.