Most children are constantly on the go, expending energy all the time. Therefore it’s essential that children eat enough nutrient dense and energy rich food like carbohydrates in their diet, as well as other nutrients like protein and fat, to help fuel their active bodies, and meet their nutrient requirements for growth and development.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel for the brain and body, which is especially important for children as they are still developing, and need both brain and body to help them learn and play. Carbohydrates are also required for digestion, assimilation of other foods, and to help break fat down in the liver.
Carbohydrates should make up at least 45-65% of total daily calories in a child’s diet. This is dependant on age, gender and daily activity levels. Healthy choices of carbohydrates include wholegrain foods such as breads, breakfast cereals, grains, pasta and noodles, as well as fruit, vegetables, legumes and dairy products. Wholegrain foods provide longer lasting energy, as well as feeling fuller longer because of their high resistant starch or insoluble fibre content, which digests in the body more slowly, allowing the body’s blood sugar to rise more gradually.
Unhealthy choices of carbohydrate foods include soft drinks, lollies, cakes, biscuits, pastries, ice cream and chips. These foods are often high in sugar, salt, fat (particularly trans fat), and low in fibre. These unhealthy foods can instead spoil an appetite for healthy food; when eaten regularly and in excess, contribute to oral cavities, chronic disease i.e. obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and nutrient deficiencies; and increase the cost of your grocery bill. When children eat good sources of carbohydrates, not only are they having their energy requirements met, but also their nutrient requirements for example bread, grains and pasta contain b vitamins, folate, vitamin E and minerals such iron, zinc and magnesium, milk is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, and fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamin and minerals especially A and C.
Restriction of carbohydrates in children have all sorts of side effects including low levels or deficiencies of certain nutrients required for healthy growth.
Examples of some of these nutrients include:
Folate or folic acid, which is essential for normal red blood cells, cell production and maintenance in the body, brain growth and nervous system development. Daily folate recommendations for children include:
- 1 to 3 years — 150 micrograms
- 4 to 8 years — 200 micrograms
- 9 to 13 years —300 micrograms
- 14 to 18 years – 400 micrograms
- Good sources of folate include fortified breads and cereals, citrus fruits, legumes and leafy greens.
Calcium, which is essential for healthy bones therefore an important nutrient whilst bones are still growing. Daily calcium recommendations for children are
- 1 to 3 years — 500 milligrams
- 4 to 8 years — 800 milligrams
- 9 to 18 years — 1,300 milligrams
Dairy products are a good source of calcium, as well as vitamin D and protein. And they also contain necessary fat that children need for energy, growth and development. 2-3 servings of dairy can help children meet these recommendations. Full-fat dairy products are required up to the age of 2 then low-fat dairy products can be offered from then on. Calcium can also be found in other foods, but usually in smaller amounts. Some of these foods include tinned salmon, sardines, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, almonds, tahini and calcium fortified products.
5-30% of protein and 25-40% of fat make up the remainder of a kids daily diet. Percentages are dependant on age, gender and daily activity levels.
Protein provides energy, but more importantly is required for building and repairing the body. For example it helps build and repair muscle, bones, organs, skin, hair, nails and so much more. Protein rich foods include lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs dairy, legumes and nuts.
Fat is a good source of energy and essential fatty acids. It is also required for normal brain development, growth and cell production, as well as absorption of some vitamins. Fat is obtained from foods and oils in the diet. It’s found in three forms: saturated fat which is found in all animal products i.e. meat and dairy; monounsaturated fat which is found in most nuts and pumpkin seeds, canola and olive oil; and polyunsaturated fat which is found in fish, soybeans, and other seeds. All three types of fats are needed for a healthy diet but care should be taken not to consume too much fat, especially saturated fat, which aren’t good for health and can lead to chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease and weight gain.
Children need to be eating a balanced and nutritious diet that includes plenty of healthy carbohydrates, along with proteins and fats, and limits added sugars and salt. Not only will this help your child remain active but also adopt a healthier relationship to food, as well as lifestyle that can be hopefully carried out lifelong.
Cherie Lyden is a nutritionist and mother.