Despite being small, children have a huge demand for some nutrients; this is because their body is undergoing rapid growth. This article will explore which nutrients are most important for healthy growth and development for children between 4-11 years old.
Macro-nutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and make up the majority of the food we eat. They are abundant in most foods and requirements for these is measured in grams. In some circumstances our body can convert some macro-nutrients from others, which reduces the emphasis the need of specific quantities.
Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are primarily used as a substrate for the production of energy, which is important for children to ensure enough energy is provided to facilitate growth (and running around). Carbohydrate deficiency is so rare it is unheard of among children, as it is so abundant in modern diets. It is important to make sure that the correct carbohydrates are being consumed though; simple carbohydrates such as sugar, have a number of negative effects on the body and should be avoided where possible.
Fats – Fats can act as a substrate for energy too, but they also fulfill a number of complex roles in the body, such as creating hormones, developing nerves and making up cell membranes. A group of fats called omega-3 fats (which compromises the important alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) are of particular importance. These fatty acids are needed for brain growth and development, and there are numerous studies which show that children who regularly consume ALA, EPA and DHA have a higher IQ and are faster learners than those who don’t. Unlike many fats, our body cannot synthesize omega-3 in the body and so we need to obtain omega-3 from our diet. Foods high in these fats are oily fish, nuts and seeds. Sever deficiency of these essential fats is rare, but mild deficiency is relatively common in children because these fats are not abundant in a modern diet.
Proteins – Proteins are very important to child growth, and they are often thought of as ‘the building blocks’ for humans. They are essential for creating all the cells in our body, and so with too little protein child growth may be stunted. Deficiency of protein in childhood is extremely rare, and enough is obtained from diet.
Micro-nutrients compromise of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, the quantities of these are usually measure in milligrams (instead of grams), and we require very small amounts of these to keep healthy. However, despite the small requirements, they are not very abundant in our diet, and they are not only vital to stay healthy, but vital to stay alive. Although all micro-nutrients are important, there are a number of micro-nutrients which are of particular importance to child growth.
Vitamin D/ Calcium – Child bones are rapidly reshaping and growing to facilitate growth. Vitamin D and calcium are two micro-nutrients which are vital to ensure that bones are able to re-shape and keep strong. The primary component of bone is calcium, and so for bones to reshape/ grow and remain strong, enough calcium must be supplied to the body. Vitamin D is needed to help fix the calcium into the bone; without vitamin D the calcium cannot be utilized to form bone. Deficiency of these nutrients is rare, but is slowly becoming more common as less children are drinking milk, and instead drinking sugary drinks – which leach calcium from the bones. This can lead to weak and underdeveloped bones, and in sever cases can lead to rickets.
Iron – Iron is essential for brain development, the immune system and transporting oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency is relatively common among children, with nearly 10% of children under the age of 15 being deficient in iron – which can result in anemia.
Zinc – Zinc is a mineral which is needed for a number of cellular functions such as cell division, protein synthesis and facilitates the action of over 100 enzymes. It is fundamentally essential for all cell activity and as the cells of children are so active they have a high demand for zinc.
The human body is most vulnerable to toxins in early development, and so it is important to avoid high toxin food where possible. This can make obtaining enough omega-3 fatty acids difficult, as oily fish such as cod are very high in toxins such as PCB’s, methlymercury and lead, but are a great source of omega-3’s. To avoid these toxins children should eat small oily fish such as mackerel, or nuts and seeds. Other dietary toxins are in low concentrations in a normal healthy diet, and should not affect child growth, but foods covered with pesticides should be avoided where possible.
As children are undergoing rapid growth their nutritional requirements are different to adults. It is important that children obtain enough essential fats (such as omega-3), protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin K and zinc to ensure healthy growth. It is also important to avoid dietary toxins as much as possible as children are most vulnerable to the damage these toxins can cause.