6 Basic Nutrients Required for Your Child’s Healthy Diet

Learn Why Your Child Needs Daily Adequate Supply of All These Nutrients

Before I start my post series on main food categories to be found on your child’s plate (MyPlate), I’d like to get down to the basics first and write about nutrients. In this post, I will just give a brief overview of all the important nutrients and will write about each one in a separate post when an opportunity arises.  
 
The human body needs these main nutrients to survive and stay healthy:
 
•    Water
•    Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fats (macronutrients)
•    Vitamins and Minerals (micronutrients)
 
These nutrients are obtained from food, as the human body cannot produce nutrients on its own. All of them are essential for proper body functioning, therefore as part of a healthy diet, it is important to aim for the right combination possible. 

And to understand what is the right combination let’s go over each of these nutrients in more detail.

Water

We all know that water is essential for life. We need water to digest food, absorb nutrients from food and remove waste. More than half of the human body is made up of water. Our body uses water in all its cells, organs and tissues. And because we constantly lose water through sweating, breathing and digesting, it’s important to have plenty of fluids each day to restore water reserves in our body.

How much water?

If we don’t get enough water, we become dehydrated and start to lose energy, focus, and concentration. Adults need over 2 liters of water daily to stay hydrated.
 
All this is true for children and even more so. Between the ages 1 and 3, they need around 1.3 liters of fluid a day to stay hydrated. I will write more about this in one of my future posts.  

The second group of nutrients is the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Macronutrients provide calories, or energy and our body needs them in large amounts.

Carbohydrates

There is a big misconception that all carbs are bad for our health. And this mainly comes from trendy weight loss diets, which – without going too much into detail – defame carbs all together. Whereas it is important to know that:

– Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients in food and the body’s main source of energy.

– The three main types of carbohydrates found in foods are sugars, starches and fiber.

– Our body needs all three forms of carbohydrates to function properly.

Good carbs vs bad carbs

Yes, there are carbs that contain only “empty calories” and lots of sugar and should be avoided. Carbs commonly considered bad include all white-flour foods such as white bread, white pasta, white pastries, as well as all highly processed foods and sodas. And although these are the foods that we enjoy the most, we need to understand that they are high in calories that barely provide any nutritional value.

On the contrary, the right kind of carbs are primarily found in plant foods: grains, vegetables and fruits, as well as dairy products, which contain milk sugar (lactose). Everything seems to be clear with vegetable and fruits, and it is a well-known fact that they are packed with nutrients and vitamins. But the importance of grains is quite often overlooked. Yet, whole grains are rich in dietary fiber, several B vitamins and different minerals. So by simply switching to whole wheat bread and pasta instead of the white flour ones, or brown rice instead of the white one, we significantly increase our good carb vs. bad carb intake.

How much carbohydrates?

With lack of good carbs, our body starts to consume protein as a main source of energy. And this can cause issues as we need protein to build and repair tissues of muscles, skin, bones, hair, among other things. Plus carbohydrates supply fiber and insufficient fiber can cause digestive problems and constipation. The latter is especially true for little children who get easily constipated therefore need enough daily intake of fiber.

For an average adult FDA’s recommendations for total carbohydrates is 300 grams per day, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. As for children, starting at the age of 1 they need to consume 130 grams of total carbohydrates daily. And obviously the majority of their carbs should come from whole grains, vegetables and fruits.

Protein

Protein is a component of every cell in the human body, including skin, hair, nails, muscle, bone. This macronutrient is important for proper growth and development, especially in children, teens, and pregnant women. In other words, we need protein in our diet to help our body build and repair tissue. And extra protein is used to produce energy.   

Protein is found in both animal and plant foods. Good sources of protein are:
– Meats and poultry,
– Eggs,
– Seafood,
– Dairy and soy products,
– Beans and peas,
– Nuts and seeds

Some grains (quinoa) and vegetables also contain protein but in a lesser amount than other sources.

How much protein?

Most people consume the recommended amounts of protein. The issue is that many individuals get most of their protein intake from meat and poultry and do not eat enough seafood, dairy or plant-based protein. When in fact protein from the latter sources tends to be lower in fat and cholesterol and rich in fiber and other health-promoting nutrients.

For an average adult FDA’s recommendations for protein is 50 grams per day, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. As for children, the recommended amount of protein for toddlers is 10-15 grams per day depending on the child’s weight. It is important to consume protein every day because the body doesn’t store it the way it stores carbohydrates or fats.

Fats

Just like carbs, and even more so, fats have a bad reputation and are often blamed for any health problem possible. Many people believe that a low-fat diet means healthy. However, this is so not true. Fat is another macronutrient that is essential for our body. Consuming the right type of fat and in the right amount is key to maintaining good health.

Yes, you got me right: fat is good for our health! Children under age of 2, in particular, need lots of healthy fats for proper brain development. Fats give our body energy, help keep our skin and hair healthy. We need fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Plus, surprisingly the right forms of fat help to keep cholesterol level under control.

There are several types of fats from which the unsaturated fats – including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat – are good for our health. Saturated fats and trans fats are commonly considered unhealthy. Everything is crystal clear with trans fats: they are the worst type of fat, mostly found in fried junk food. But when it comes to saturated fats, things are not so unequivocal. So let look into each type of fats in more detail.

Monounsaturated Fat

In addition to providing calories and helping our body to absorb vitamins, monounsaturated fats help lower bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we need to consume more that the recommended amount.  They usually stay liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in high-fat fruits, nuts, and seeds, as well as vegetable oils:
– Avocados and olives,
– Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and pecans);
– Seeds (pumpkin and sesame seeds)
– Oils (olive, canola, peanut and safflower oils)

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fat is a source of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs). They are essential because our body needs them for optimal and healthy functioning but cannot produce on its own. So our diet must have enough of these fats to avoid problems and breakdown. EFAs play important role in many body processes, including immune and nervous system function, blood clotting, and blood pressure regulation. Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats also help fight bad cholesterol. They stay liquid even in the cold because their melting point is lower than that of monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods, including:

– Fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, tuna)
– Nuts (pine nuts and walnuts)
– Seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds)
– Vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, cottonseed, soybean oils)

Saturated Fat

There is currently a big controversy around saturated fat. While most state health organizations claim that saturated fat is bad for our health as it raises the bad cholesterol level increasing the risk of heart disease, a number of recent scientific researches prove that there is actually no link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease deaths. So until we have the final word on whether saturated fat is actually harmless for us, we should go with the right balance and try to consume butter, fatty meat, and cheese in moderation.
The human body makes more saturated fat than it needs — so it is not necessary to get saturated fat from food. It stays solid at room temperature.

Saturated fat comes from animal sources, such as red meats, poultry, and full-or-reduced fat dairy products:
– Meat fat (beef, chicken, pork)
– Cream and milk (whole and 2% milk)
– Dairy products (butter and regular/full-fat cheese, cream cheese, ice cream)
– Nuts
– Tropical plant oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils)

A good rule of thumb is to avoid saturated fat that comes from highly processed food, such as:

– Desserts (brownies, cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pastries, pies, and sweet rolls)
– Fast food
– Processed meat and poultry products (bacon, hot dogs, jerky, sausages)
– Savory snacks (chips, crackers)

Trans Fat

Unlike other fats, the only very small amount of trans fat is found naturally in some animal-based foods.  The majority of trans fats is found in overprocessed foods; this is done by the food industry to increase the shelf life of the product. This unhealthy fat is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like margarine and shortening. Consuming trans fat raises cholesterol in the blood. So overall it is safe to say that if you care about your health you should avoid trans fats at all costs.  And I can’t stress enough how important it is to completely exclude trans fat from your child’s diet, at least until the age of two.

Trans fat can be found in many of the same foods as saturated fat, including:
– Baked goods (cookies, cakes, pies, and crackers)
– Snack food (potato chips and microwave popcorn)
– Deeply fried junk food (French fries, fried chicken, and doughnuts)
– Refrigerated dough products (frozen pizza, biscuits)
– Vegetable shortening
– Stick margarine

How much fat?

FDA recommends that around 20 to 35 percent of our daily calories should come from fats. For 2,000 calories diet, the optimal fat intake would be in the range of 40-70 grams. Young children need high amounts of healthy fat for brain development, so 30-40% of their calories should come from fat. After the age of 3, the fat intake for children should be reduced to 25-35%.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals – also called micronutrients because our body needs them in relatively small amounts – support many body processes. Different vitamins and different minerals have different functions: some help our body get energy from food and resist infections, others keep our nervous system healthy. So we need to eat a big variety of food so that our body receives that right mix of vitamins and minerals.

Vitamins

There are 13 vitamins—vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate).
All vitamins fall into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, E, and K — dissolve in fat and can be stored in the body. The water-soluble vitamins — C and the B-complex vitamins – need to dissolve in water before our body can absorb them. And because our body can’t store vitamins C or B, we need a fresh supply of these vitamins every day.
We can usually get all the vitamins from food. And our body can also make vitamins D and K.

Minerals

The most important minerals for proper body functioning that we need in large amounts are calcium, iron, and potassium. These three minerals greatly contribute to children’s healthy growth, so daily recommended amount should be met. Other minerals, such as iodine, fluoride, copper, zinc, selenium are only needed in small amounts and are not of major concern.

To sum up, the human body needs the right amount and mix of ALL nutrients to maintain good health. The system can break down with the low supply of any of these nutrients. And this is especially true for children whose healthy growth and development are reliant on the right nutrition.

Does your child’s diet include all of these important nutrients?  Please let me know in the comments.

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2 Comments

    1. That’s great to know, Cindy! Even small changes in our diets can bring to overall better health 🙂