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How Do Nutrition Needs Change with Age?

Oct 11, 2011
As a dietitian who primarily works with children, I receive a lot of questions about whether or not nutrition needs change or increase as a child gets older. The simple answer is yes; the more difficult answer is that certain nutrients are more important at certain stages of life, past childhood.

As an infant, a child needs as many nutrients as possible. Breastmilk is the best option for kids because it provides extra immune building properties, as well as the necessary calories and fat a child needs. The human body is incredibly adaptable, and based on the amount a child breastfeeds; the body will continue to produce the same amount. Yet, breastfeeding is not for everyone, and formula was designed to match the nutrients found in breastmilk. The amount of vitamins and minerals found in breastmilk and formula are enough to meet nutritional needs of babies.

As a child grows into toddlerhood, an emphasis needs to be made on whole foods. At this stage, a child is extremely active and is growing, therefore increasing their calorie and protein needs. This will not change as a child ages into adolescence. If a child is extremely active, he/she will need more nutrients (i.e. calories, fat, protein, etc). One important nutrient throughout childhood is calcium. Families can incorporate calcium through dairy rich foods, such as milk or cheese, and non-dairy foods, such as beans. In addition, a child needs to choose good sources of calories and fat to maintain proper growth and to increase energy without excess weight gain. For example, choosing more foods from fruit and vegetables will help a child meet his/her vitamin and mineral needs, while also incorporating calorie needs.

Caloric needs vary depending on age, gender, and activity. Typically, adults need between 25-30 calories/kg per day. Infants need between 100-500 calories/kg per day, depending on the initial weight of the baby. Once a child surpasses toddlerhood (age 4+), calorie needs decrease until adulthood. The table below shows the estimated breakdown for carbohydrate, protein, and fat needs (according to the Institute of Medicine):

Age (years)

Carbohydrate

Protein

Fat

1-3

45-65 %

5-20%

30-40%

4-18

45-65%

10-30%

25-35%

19+ (adults)

45-65%

10-35%

20-35%


As a healthy adult, needs do not change drastically, and would only vary during pregnancy, lactation, and an increase in physical activity. Based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, during pregnancy, women need to increase their intake by 300 calories per day, and include 800-1000 mg of calcium and 520 micrograms of folate. These amounts can vary depending on the age of the pregnant woman. If a woman breastfeeds, calorie needs increase by 500 calories per day and Vitamin A increases to 900 micrograms per day (compared to 500 micrograms per day).

Overall, a healthy diet that incorporates whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean protein and dairy products should meet all of your needs. Increasing physical activity may require you to increase calories and protein.

Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating. To contact Rhea, please visit dazzlingdietitian.blogspot.com or her Twitter account, Rhea_Li.


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