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Nutritional Needs of Childhood and Adolescence

After the age of one the child’s growth rate slows, but the body continues to change and develop.  The child learns to stand and walk and these accomplishments are possible due to the accumulation of a larger body mass and greater bone density and muscle tissue.  Thereafter growth continues, unevenly and more slowly until adolescence.  Appetite decreases markedly around the age of one, in response to the reduced growth rate and continues to fluctuate according to growth demands until puberty.  A child only offered nutritious foods and allowed to eat according to appetite will grow well and in proportion.  During childhood, nutrients are stored to provide for the adolescent growth spurt.  This is especially true for calcium, the denser the bones are in childhood, the better prepared they will be to withstand bone loss in later life.  Iron is also an important nutrient and the one most likely to be deficient in the diet.

Overall, children should be taught to eat slowly, to pause and interact with the family during mealtime and to stop eating when full.  Eating whilst watching TV or computer games should be strongly discouraged.  Snacks derived from highly processed high fat/salt/sugar foods should also be discouraged.  These are for “party occasions” only and are not foods for every day.  Most contain no essential nutrients at all – so called “empty” calories.

Serve smaller portions of foods and allow for seconds if needed rather than large servings that promote excessive intake or alternatively are overwhelming.

Encourage physical activity on a daily basis to promote strong skeletal and muscular development and establish habits for lifelong good health.  The obese child must be handled carefully, it is best that they be fed to maintain a constant weight while they grow.  The object is to restrict the multiplication of fat cells while promoting normal lean body development, thus the obese child may gradually “grow out” of their obesity.

Cardiovascular disease is another condition that begins in childhood and is largely preventable.  Discourage snacking on high fat, high sugar and high salt foods because these favour the development of atherosclerosis and hypertension.  Osteoporosis is another adult disease which may reflect a person’s childhood dietary habits.  Milk consumption is encouraged during childhood primarily to provide the calcium necessary for skeletal growth, but the benefits of calcium rich foods in fact reach into adult life.  Calcium intake throughout life enables optimum bone density and high bone density defends against bone loss later in life.

Poor dental health is another preventable condition.  Adequate nutrition is needed to help the mouth and teeth develop properly and restriction of sticky carbohydrate rich foods which feed the bacteria that cause tooth decay.  Commercial fruit juices are very high in sugar and have become the source of a significant increase in dental decay in young children.  The carbon in carbohydrate fizzy soft drinks has seen an increase in fractures in children and young adults.  The main nutrient requirements for healthy teeth are protein, calcium, vitamins A, C and D and fluoride.

Prior to puberty the differences between male and female growth patterns are minimal.  For females the growth spurt begins between 10 or 11 and peaks at 12 years and for males it begins at 12 or 13 and peaks at 14 years.  Gender differences in the skeletal system, lean body mass and the fat stores become apparent during the adolescent growth spurt.  In females fat becomes a larger percentage of the total body weight and in males lean body mass, muscles and bone, become much greater.  This intensive growth period brings not only a dramatic increase in height and weight, but also hormonal changes that profoundly affect every organ of the body, including the brain and result ultimately in physically mature adult boy within two to three years.  Total nutrient needs are greater during adolescence than at any other time of life, with the exception of pregnancy and lactation.  Iron, is again of special importance, because of the onset of menstruation in females and the great increase in lean body mass in males.

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