The key to proper nutrition is a healthy, well-balanced diet, physical activeness, and a conducive lifestyle, which imparts lifetime health benefits to the children. The nutritional and lifestyle choices of children and parents in early childhood years show their outcomes in later years when the body is prone to several health ailments and chronic manifestations. It also largely influences the healthiness level of children by defining their vulnerability to diseases and shaping their immunity to adverse health conditions during their growth years which affect the rest of their lives.
A well-proportioned nutritional diet is of paramount importance in developing children. Children lacking proper nutrients during their growth years suffer from malnutrition resulting in physical ailments, growth impairments, and severe clinical conditions. Poor and under-nourished diets in early childhood can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients, which weakens children's immunity, increases their health risks, and can lead to death from common childhood diseases like diarrhea. Some of the most prevalent health issues faced by malnourished children include being under-weight or obese, bone defects and osteoporosis, deficiency diseases, decreased muscle mass, fatigue, irritability, cognitive disorders, and chronic manifestations like type 2 diabetes.
Factors Influencing the Nutritional Status among Children
Food preferences, a key determinant for diet quality and health outcomes, are dynamic and continuously change throughout life, under the influence of biological, social, and environmental factors. The child's approach to health and diet is dominated by family and peers, which are significantly influenced by community, society, media, and food availability and accessibility. Children acclimate to their social environments regarding eating behaviors, lifestyle habits, and dietary attitudes. Some of the factors impacting the child's dietary patterns and habits are:
Family Environment – Family is a child's first school where he gets a first-hand experience of family customs and practices and their way of living. Thus, a positive family system is vital in establishing and promoting healthy behaviors.
Parental Influence - Children exposed to effective parenting show the highest self-efficacy, self-discipline, and improved eating habits. Parental feeding behaviors significantly influence the development of children's food preferences.
Television and Media - Individuals may be more likely to overeat when watching television and may learn unhealthy food habits from advertisements and programs. Many research studies evidenced that school children with more television exposure consume high-sugar and high-fat foods due to media influence.
Education – People aware of a healthy diet and good eating practices can induce healthy dietary habits in their children. Lack of proper education and ignorance lead to nutritional disorders in the family and children.
Socioeconomic Status – Individuals of low economic class are generally uneducated and incapable of providing good quality healthy food to their children. Social disadvantage in childhood may contribute to the development of chronic diseases in adulthood by predisposing the children to adopt unhealthy behaviors.
Nutrition for children of different age groups
The fundamentals of nutrition for children are based on the same core principles as nutrition for adults, as everyone needs the same types of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and fat); however nutritional requirements of children may differ in amounts of specific nutrients at different ages. A diet comprising the five main food groups, including grains, dairy, protein, vegetables, and fruit, is the optimal starting point for any child's diet. Each food group's portions depend on age, gender, genetics, growth rate, and physical activity.
Nutrition for Newborns
UNICEF and WHO recommend that breastfeeding is the best option to fulfill the nutritional needs of infants. In the primitive years of life, breast milk is the only safe and nutritious food for neonates that assists in their holistic growth and development and shields them from various diseases.
Young children undergo various developmental changes, which can be directed favorably by monitoring and managing their food and dietary supplements. Feeding a nutritional diet to toddlers (1-3 years) can be particularly challenging as it is essential to introduce food variety within the five food groups to gain the full spectrum of nutritional benefits. The food offered to toddlers should be soft and adequately cooked so it is easy to chew and swallow without choking hazards.
The preschool years (ages 3-5) are the influential stage for developing healthy eating habits for a lifetime. Calcium is one key component that is imperative for young preschool children as it is essential for developing strong, healthy bones and teeth. Another vital nutrient for preschoolers is fiber, as it aids in digestion and prevents constipation and other digestive problems.
Nutrition for School-age Children
Young children (6-12 years) should aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily as they provide plenty of vitamins and minerals essential for combating illnesses and diseases and developing immunity. They also contain fiber that is necessary to maintain regular bowel movements and prevent constipation. Healthy snacking should be encouraged, and salty, fatty, and sugary foods, low-fiber foods, and drinks with caffeine or a lot of sugar should be avoided.
Ensuring a Healthy Diet for Your Child –
The Kid's Healthy Eating Plate is a visual guide that educates and encourages to opt for a healthy diet by specifying the best-choice food options for healthy meals and snacks. It can help assess the child's daily nutritional intake and works towards the optimal growth and development of children by providing measures for staying fit and healthy. According to the food plate method, a healthy, well-balanced diet should consist of half a plate of fruits and vegetables and one-quarter portions of protein and carbohydrates in a meal.
Different foods provide different nutrients to ensure your child gets a good variety of food options from all five food groups.
Fill half of your child's plate with fruits and vegetables.
Opt for healthy sources of protein, such as lean meat, nuts, and eggs
Serve whole-grain bread and cereals because they are high in fiber; limit the intake of refined grains.
Avoid fried foods; instead, choose the options of baking, steaming, and grilling to cook food.
Choose fresh foods over highly processed foods; limit fast and junk food.
Prefer water or milk instead of sugary drinks and sodas.
Teach the children the importance of good nutrition, and establish healthy eating habits.
Find nutritious foods that children enjoy.
Replace sugary desserts with fruit options.
Modify your cooking style and make the food visually appealing for the children.
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