By Norma DeVault, PhD, MBA, RD, LD
As a parent, you may be bombarded with confusing information about what and how much kids should eat. Your infant, toddler or teen is in a constant state of growth. His diet must provide enough calories and nutrients to support normal growth and development. Building bones to last a lifetime and steadily increasing blood volume and muscle mass takes energy and specific nutrients.
What your child eats affects his physical growth. An infant’s birth weight typically triples in the first year. Toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 years gain about 1/2 lb. and 0.4 inches in height per month, and preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5 years gain about 4.4 lb. and 2.75 inches per year. During the school years, your child will likely gain about 7 lb. and grow 2.5 inches in height, according to Judith Brown in “Nutrition Through the Life Cycle.” Doctors and dietitians use growth charts as one source of information in evaluating your child’s nutritional status and overall health.
Cognitive development increases dramatically in the toddler years with advances in gross and fine motor skills that enable walking, jumping, exploring and practicing new self-feeding skills. Children need a variety of foods that provide energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals for optimal growth and development and the ability to learn. Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, can negatively affect math scores, tardiness, absenteeism and hyperactivity, according to Eleanor Noss Whitney, Ph.D., and Sharon Rady Rolfes in “Understanding Nutrition.”
Everyone needs carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, but specific needs and amounts vary by age, according to MayoClinic.com. Infants get nearly everything they need for health in their first six months from breast milk or formula with a later addition of iron-fortified cereal, strained fruits and vegetables and pureed meat. Toddlers and preschoolers especially need calcium and fiber.
Elementary school children often begin choosing their own lunch from the cafeteria. Sugars, fat and sodium need to be limited. Calcium becomes most important for adolescents who are building their peak bone mass during the teen years. They need extra energy at this time, but often get it in the form of sweetened beverages that tend to displace calcium-containing, more nutritious foods and drinks in their diet, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity has increased dramatically in the past few decades.
The eating habits and activity patterns that your child establishes early on may affect her risk of developing chronic disease later in life. The atherosclerosis that leads to heart disease begins in childhood and adolescence with fatty streak formation in the arteries and progresses to fibrous plaques that begin to clog the arteries in adulthood. Some health risk factors such as a diet high in total fat, saturated fat, obesity, high blood pressure and sedentary lifestyle may begin in childhood.
Encourage and support your child’s good nutrition decisions, especially eating a variety of healthy foods and controlling portion sizes. It is well worth the time and effort and need not be a frustrating, continual battle. Learn about essential nutrients and monitor your child’s growth. You can compare her growth pattern with that of other children of her age and gender by plotting her height and weight on growth charts developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.