Children have their own unique nutrient needs and meeting those needs is vital for a child to grow up big, strong, and healthy. The nutritional needs of children and adolescents are different from those of adults because children are growing and developing.

As kids approach school age, they should gradually move towards a diet that is lower in fat and higher in fibre.

WHAT IS NUTRITION?

Nutrition is the relationship of foods to the health of the human body. It is present in all processes of life, right from the very moment the sperm fertilises an egg, through foetal development in the uterus to the birth, human growth, maturity, old age, and eventual death.

Proper nutrition is when all essential nutrients are supplied and used in adequate balance to maintain optimal health and wellbeing. Good nutrition is essential for:

  • Growth
  • Maintenance
  • Normal organ development and function
  • Resistance to infection and disease
  • Ability to repair bodily damage or injury
  • Normal organ development and function.

Food is the fuel of the body. It gives energy, vitamins, minerals, and special compounds or nutrients that keep the body running smoothly.

FOOD PYRAMID

A food pyramid is a pyramid-shaped nutrition guide divided into sections to show the recommended intake for each food group. The food pyramid is an outline of what to eat each day based on healthy dietary guidelines. It is not a rigid prescription but a general guide to choose a healthy diet. It calls for eating a variety of foods to supply all the nutrients needed and at the same time the right number of calories to maintain healthy weight.

3 principles of nutrition:

  • Right quantities
  • Wide variety of food
  • Balance intake with the rate the body uses it

The actual nutrient requirement will vary from individual to individual due to metabolism, increased nutrient demand due to illness or growth.

WHAT IS A NUTRIENT?

A nutrient is a source of nourishment or an ingredient in a food e.g. protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamin, mineral, fibre, and water.

Nutrients contain chemical substances that can function in one or more ways:

  • Furnish the body with heat and energy
  • Provide material for growth and repair of body tissues
  • Assist in the regulation of body processes

As nutrients operate synergistically, one cannot do without the other. Any deficiencies result in imbalances where the body becomes vulnerable to numerous ailments and dysfunctions. The effects on health may be subtle and only harmful after a prolonged period of time.

VITAMINS AND MINERALS

The human body requires seven major types of nutrients divided in two groups namely macronutrients (needed in relatively large quantities) and micronutrients (needed in small quantities).

Macronutrients

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Proteins
  • Non-energy providing
  • Fibre
  • Water

Micronutrients

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Vitamins must be supplied by the diet or supplements since only Vitamin D can be synthesised by the body. About 16 minerals have been found to be essential in human nutrition amongst which are calcium, potassium, chloride, sodium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

IS HEALTHY FOOD ENOUGH?

Healthy food is always the first choice but sometimes the quality and quantity of the vitamin and mineral content in fruit and vegetables are not good due to:

  • Soil conditions – plants may look the same but now have fewer minerals
  • Transport and subsequent food storage e.g. refrigeration
  • Processing, such as freezing
  • Boiling vegetables which can remove or destroy some of the valuable water-soluble vitamins e.g. vitamins B and C

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT CHILDREN?

Early childhood is a period of rapid growth and development and therefore imbalanced nutrient supply will alter body structure and function and will increase the risk of chronic disease in adulthood.

In the long-term micronutrient deficiencies will lead to:

  • Tiredness at work or at school
  • Irritation, moodiness
  • Cuts and injuries might take longer to heal
  • Longer recovery times from illness such as colds

Even more serious is the fact that not choosing a healthy diet over a prolonged period can result in:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

DO CHILDREN NEED A MULTIVITAMIN?

Healthy eating remains important and a healthy varied and balanced diet is important. Vitamins and minerals do not provide energy but healthy food does. Supplements assist in food absorption and conversion of food to energy.

There are components in food which cannot be replaced by supplements – such as carbohydrates, fat, protein, and fibre. Multivitamins supplement a balanced diet but do not replace it.

Taking this into consideration, should children take a supplement? Children rarely eat the four to five portions of fruit and vegetables recommended every day. It is also well-known that most children are very picky eaters and can be very selective about the vegetables that they eat e.g. broccoli. A lot of children mostly eat snack food that tends to contain more fat, sugar, salt, and less fibre.

A daily, good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement can help to fill nutritional gaps. A good quality multivitamin is:

  • Balanced and complete with all the vitamins and minerals required to help maintain health; complete from A to Zinc
  • Formulated to meet recommendations of authoritative bodies to ensure that it maintains safe levels
  • Complementing dietary patterns and will not lead to overconsumption of vitamins and minerals.

Multivitamins and minerals ensure an adequate wide spectrum of nutrients to fill the nutrient gaps that will protect a child’s health and help to prevent diseases. A multivitamin will make sure that the child is getting the full range of micronutrients.

As kids approach school age, they should gradually move towards a diet that is lower in fat and higher in fibre. By the age of five, their diet should be low in fat, sugar, and salt, and high in fibre with five fruit and vegetables a day – just like adults. An adequate supply of nutrients is an important prerequisite for the well-being of children. Optimum nutrition and good feeding of infants and young children are amongst the most important determinants of their health, growth and development.