People have varying nutritional needs depending on their age. Toddles should consume more fat than adults, teenagers need to consume more calcium, and menopausal women should cut back on caffeine. A guide to the best nutritional advice for different age groups is given.
A LOT OF NUTRITIONAL advice takes a “one-diet-fits-all” approach. Watch your cholesterol. Eat more calcium. Boost your fiber intake. Such broad generalizations, though, don’t address your day-to-day eating habits–exactly what foods should you emphasize and why? And even more specifically, how does your age affect what food choices you should be making? Human beings are complex and evolutionary, growing from curious toddlers to energetic teenagers, to time-pressed adults. Each stage comes with its own joys, demands, risks and rewards, and each stage has its own unique nutritional needs. How can you figure out what those needs are? Read on for a nutritional trip through the ages and stages of life, complete with tips on how to create a diet that’s fit for you.
BIRTH TO AGE 10
THE FORMULA MAKERS may not like it, but even they admit it in their ads: Human milk is the bestfood for babies. Period. “Breast milk alone provides not only all the essential nutrients, but it also provides immunological factors and possibly growth factors,” says Frances Stewart, M.S., R.D., chief of clinical nutrition at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. “We don’t know for sure yet, but some studies have indicated that breast milk fosters intellectual growth as well as gastrointestinal development.” Breast milk also may help prevent both environmental and food allergies, and breastfed babies have fewer ear infections than formula-fed babies.
Stewart is thrilled to see those rare women who breastfeed their babies for at least a year (less than 6 percent of all mothers); in a perfect world she’d have them nurse two to three years. “There’s a stigma in the United States about breastfeeding for more than a year, and we need to remove that,” she says, citing such benefits as stronger mother-child bonds, effective comforting and continuing immunological protection for as long as you nurse.
At four to six months, most babies start tasting the foods of their future. About this time, some parents start worrying that their adorable little pudgeball will be every bit as chubby on his 21st birthday. Not to worry, say the experts; before age 2, you’ll do your child more harm than good if you restrict his intake of fat. “I’ve seen cases of what we call failure to thrive, or retarded growth, because of what was basically malnutrition [from restricting fat intake],” says Stewart.
Accept that your toddler needs a higher percentage of fat in his diet than you do, to foster growth of his brain and body. If you intend for your child to have dairy products, whole milk is best between the ages of I and 2. (Experts advise against giving cow’s milk to any child younger than 1, because it is so commonly allergenic; milk also has been linked to the development of diabetes in genetically predisposed infants.) If you’d rather not give your child milk, then avocadoes, peanut butter and other nut butters are healthful high-fat foods to try.
After age 2 the growth rate slows and the seeds of heart disease are already being sown–arterial fatty deposits have been found in children as young as 3–so it’s time to watch fat intake. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children 2 and older consume no more than 3 0 percent of their calories from fat; however, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest believes that 2 5 percent (the same recommendation it makes for adults) is a more healthful limit. Make sure to keep mealtimes high on variety and pleasure, and low on bribes and clean-your-plate rules. “Pressuring kids to eat something just doesn’t work,” says Stewart. Offer children very small portions of new foods–a big mound of spinach is an off-putting sight to suspicious eyes–and let them see you eating the same food with gusto. Rewarding children with dessert when they’ve eaten their vegetables is a blueprint for poor adult nutrition–the message is that healthy food is something you must suffer through to reach your sugary goal. Several studies have shown that children who repeatedly are offered new foods are more likely to eat them and that over the course of a few months, a 2-year-old will get all the nutrients she needs if she is allowed to choose from an array of foods at each meal. She may eat only tortillas one day and pears the next, but after a week or so, it all averages out.
Stewart says that children presented with healthful foods generally don’t need supplements. But she has seen a fair amount of iron deficiency and anemia in children under 3, and says that both vegetarian and non-vegetarian families need to pay close attention to this issue. Vegetarian foods especially high in iron include beans, eggs, peas, nuts, dried fruit, enriched pasta and bread, fortified cereal and leafy greens. Heme iron, found only in meat, is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron, found in plant-based foods, but “you can increase the absorption of non-heme iron by drinking orange juice or getting some other source of vitamin C [at the same time],” says Stewart.
During these bone-growth years, calcium is a critical nutrient; the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for children this age is 800 milligrams to 1,200 milligrams (mg.) daily. Some good calcium sources include plain low-fat yogurt, skim milk, tofu made with calcium sulfate (it will say so on the label), fortified orange and apple juices, fortified soymilk and fortified cereal. If winters are bleak where you live, vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption of calcium, may be an additional concern, because sunlight causes the body to manufacture this nutrient; if your child doesn’t consume any D-fortified foods, you may want to consider a D supplement during the winter months. And to ensure a healthy intake of vitamin A, an essential building block that helps develop vision and prevent infections and disease, offer lots of dark green and orange-yellow foods, including sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, spinach, tomatoes and carrots.