According to World Health Organization (WHO) data , 17.6 million children under the age of five are obese. In Spain alone, for example, 43% of children between the ages of 6 and 9 are overweight or obese, according to a study conducted by the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition of the Spanish Ministry of Health.
This disease, which often begins in childhood, causes serious damage in adulthood. Specifically, obesity and being overweight can lead to serious health problems such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and even some types of cancer. Therefore, feeding a child properly from a young age is crucial to protecting us from these diseases. In addition, at this age children learn how to eat and adopt basic eating habits.
A study on child nutrition
Baby nutrition should be rich and varied. Here are some of the important questions:
What benefits does a balanced diet bring to the health of children?
A healthy diet for the child and teenager provides all the nutrients necessary for proper growth, as the bones develop strong and healthy, and it prevents the usual diseases at this age such as anemia caused by iron deficiency, malnutrition or constipation, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Feeding a child through a balanced and varied diet is also necessary to maintain the balance of beneficial intestinal bacteria and strengthen anyone’s immune system. And more in children. Likewise, it helps maintain defenses against disease, helping to prevent and combat the common cold, flu, and other infections that spread easily in daycare centers, nursery schools and schools.
What are the nutritional needs of children?
During childhood and adolescence, energy and nutritional needs are particularly high, because the organism is in a state of continuous growth and development. The food should be rich in the various nutrients that it needs. Therefore, a child or teenager must consume appropriate products to obtain the necessary contribution from:
During the first year of life, energy needs are very high and then decrease very reasonably until they gradually increase in adolescence.
Protein needs are very high in infants, then decrease later, and rise again in adulthood. It is found in meat, fish, dairy products, legumes, grains, nuts, and other foods.
The consumption of either complex carbohydrates (cereal or rice) or simple carbohydrates (sugar or honey) is also essential in childhood.
To calculate the fiber requirements for younger children, the following process is usually performed: Add the number 5 to the child’s age, for example, an 8-year-old needs 13 grams of fiber per day (8 + 5). This formula is applicable from the age of two years. Fiber, among its other benefits, helps regulate cholesterol and blood sugar level. Fiber is found in legumes and grains, and it is the main ingredient in nuts, vegetables and fruits.
It is important to control the amount and quality of fats included in the diet from childhood. Above all, children and teens should avoid excess saturated fats, which are found in foods of animal origin that contain fats, such as milk, butter, dairy products, fatty meats, sausages and sauces. On the other hand, it is advisable to consume plant-based fats (unsaturated), especially olive oil.
Adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables “at least five portions or servings per day” will ensure at least the necessary contribution of vitamins C and A. On the other hand, consumption of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products provides B vitamins.
For example, calcium is necessary for the formation of the skeleton, so children should consume a lot of dairy products and blue fish. And during periods of rapid growth, children need higher amounts of iron, so a child’s diet should include beef, legumes and grains. Finally, puberty, especially for girls, increases iodine needs. Thus, moderate consumption of iodized salt may be advised at meals, although it should not be abused and overused.
Do these needs change throughout childhood?
Age is a critical factor in food, and the amount of nutrients a child needs not only has to be different from an adult, but varies over the years. Three distinct phases have been identified:
From 3 to 6 years
Energy needs are especially high, as it is a period of growth and development, as well as significant physical activity. At this time, children need relatively high-quality protein than adults, so their diet should include enough meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. At this age, the child should also start the habit of a full breakfast.
From 7 to 12 years old
At this stage the needs for growth are still numerous, with little daily intake of dairy products, fruits, vegetables, salad and bread alternating with meat, eggs and blue fish, adding all kinds of legumes every week, rice and pasta. It is also necessary to direct the child to not eat only what he likes and to avoid misuse and excessive intake of sweets and soft drinks.
From 13 to 16 years old
At this stage, a so-called “growth spurt” occurs, as the muscles and skeleton reach the end of the formation, and the diet must be rich with enough calories and include amounts of protein and calcium of high quality from dairy products, vegetables, legumes, and many others such as fish and seafood. It is also important to get enough physical activity to avoid gaining weight.
On the other hand, the amount of food that children need to eat can vary greatly depending on their stage of development, but it is important to remember that it will not be quite the same as an adult. It is common to see how a child is forced to eat more than they want, but it is not advisable to do so, because only they know how hungry they are and at the same time, they are also responsible for learning how to regulate their appetite. In this sense, experts in the field of nutrition say that it is normal for children to go through times when they eat more than they should, and others feel less hungry, as it happens in adults.
What diet should a child follow to get all the nutrients he needs?
The child must eat these basic foodstuffs in sufficient quantities and eat them repeatedly throughout the day, why should you follow the correct eating habits every day. The Spanish Agency for Food Safety recommended the importance of breakfast and lunch, as schools in Spain cover at least 25-30% of children’s nutritional needs. However, between 10% – 15% of Spanish children do not eat breakfast, and between 20% – 30% do not eat it in sufficient quantities.
To avoid this, families should organize themselves in order to allow young children to enjoy a healthy breakfast. Breakfast should include at least one type of dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese …), bread, toast, cereal, cookies, and homemade cake or biscuits. And fruit or juice. Jam or honey and complementary fats such as olive oil. And sometimes, cold meat. For lunch, we recommend a piece of fruit, yogurt or a cheese sandwich, for example.
Second, food must provide a child with 30% of his nutritional needs, so it is appropriate for both parents and the school to participate in designing healthy and balanced menus, able to satisfy children’s tastes. Main courses should alternate between vegetables, legumes, rice, and soups, as well as meat and fish, and desserts should usually be fruits or dairy products.
Meal should not be excessive, as food at school should provide 15% of a child’s nutritional needs. Usually this meal of the day is accepted very well by children and thus completes their diet correctly, as it allows the inclusion of nutritious foods such as dairy or natural fruit. Plus, it helps avoid unnecessary snacks in between meals and makes children not arrive for dinner very hungry.
Finally, dinner should provide the child with 30% of the nutrients and energy he needs, and this will be determined based on the food eaten at noon. For this meal, a soup or salad is recommended, and meat, eggs and fish can be supplemented with supplements.
How to get kids to eat well?
Education is also the basis for proper nutrition. This is why the family plays an essential role in promoting healthy habits and a nutritional lifestyle, and is an ideal environment to ensure that children follow a balanced diet.
To achieve this, the behavior of different family members must be consistent with the verbal recommendations made to the child, as it is difficult to inculcate a healthy eating habit when the person advising her has not put it into practice.
Likewise, the family nucleus should organize schedules so that some important meals are served with the children.
Finally, we must remember that the child should not be forced to eat something he does not like or to offer food as a reward or punishment or under threat, because in this way we send the wrong messages to the child or teenager. Foods are good or bad, when they are all healthy, and should be included in a balanced diet.
Spanish Food Safety Agency (AECOSAN); A study titled “Feeding Your Children”.
Spanish Federation of Nutrition and Food and Nutrition Associations (FESNAD).
Spanish Nutrition Foundation.
Spanish Association of Pediatrics.
Nutrition and Health Blog.
Therapeutic diagnostic protocols for pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition. SEGHNP-AEP, 2013. (Spanish Society of Paediatrics).
Spanish Ministry of Health.
Cinfa Laboratories Medical Department.
Note: This information does not replace a professional medical consultation or diagnosis.