Eating disorders, obesity, malnourishment, and food intolerances are more common now than ever before. Premade food without nutritional value is definitely the biggest factor to blame. Supermarket shortcuts are packed with carbohydrates and sugars, and products that claim to be fat free are incredibly high in calories. With 21% of children and adolescents being obese, it is critical to look at what they should be eating.
Kids and adolescents are at the front line of the problems resulting from food. The young generation learns healthy habits from their parents, making it important to teach them the tools they need to keep a nutritious diet after they grow up.
School cafeterias focus more on the foods being cheap and filling, rather than on the nutritional value. So, what should children and adolescents eat? Every 5 years the dietary guidelines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDA) are updated and released. These are nutrition suggestions determined for each age group. Here is a breakdown of the best practices on feeding children and adolescents.
Children and adolescents include a big range of years, where children grow, and their needs change. It is important to remember that just like with adults, modifications to the diet need to be made depending on current weight, physical activity, and individual conditions.
The healthy dietary patterns for children and adolescents are the same as in the guidelines described for adults, meaning that the proportions of each food group are maintained throughout life. As the children grow up, they require higher calorie intake than before – this is crucial to keep in mind. Another important factor is that these calorie counts will change depending on physical activity. In general, the correct proportions of food intake are:
1. Less than 10 percent of the total calories should come from sugar
2. Less than 10 percent of the total daily calories should be from saturated fats
3. Less than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day
4. The remaining calories need to come from nutrient pack foods like fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, dairy, and unsaturated fats
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize that at least one hour of physical activity is necessary every day, for these age groups; exercise is crucial for developing basic coordination, bone strength, and muscle fitness.
According to the USDA, only 60% of children between 2 and 8 years old follow the dietary recommendation. This leaves 40% of children whose nutritional habits are less than optimal. The 2-8 year old group is relatively the easiest group to follow a healthy diet, since they completely depend on the food that their primary caregiver and schools provide them; and even then, 82% of these children consume levels of sugar, oils, and sodium, higher than recommended. The main issue with this age group is the excess eating of starches, and the low consumption of fiber. Children between 2-8 years old need to eat between 1000-1800 calories per day, depending on their age and gender.
Children undergoing the transition from late childhood to early adolescence (9-13 years-old), require between 1400 to 2000 calories per day depending on their age, gender and physical activity. Approximately 83% of this age group consume more sugar, oil, and sodium than the recommended levels by the USDA. Additionally, 100% of these children have a vegetable intake lower than the recommended one. The challenges with this age group is that the children become more independent, are able to prepare simple meals on their own, and do not depend only on their caregiver or school for food. Being rebellious about what to eat is one of the ways that children and early adolescents try to establish their independence.
Adolescents (age 14-18) are the age group that requires the highest calorie intake; they are also the most challenging group. By this time adolescents can pretty much have total control over what they eat or drink, making them the hardest group to manage. At this point, adolescents rely on the habits that are taught by their caregivers to choose adequate foods; this is why it is key for parents to introduce their children to new and healthy foods while they are young. USDA reports show that 80% of adolescents have a higher intake of sugar, fat, and sodium than the recommended ones.
Feeding children can be difficult, and adults need to be educated on the best practices when it comes to food.
1. Teach children and adolescents how to eat healthy foods as early as possible
2. Prepare the same ingredients in different ways, this will increase the chances of your child eating that item
3. Count their portions, making sure that 80% of their meals are vegetables, fruits, and proteins
4. Encourage physical activity. Practice sports with your children; stimulate physical activity as part of their regular playing routine
5. If you want your kid to be healthy, they need to see you being healthy yourself. Children copy their caregivers, meaning that if you have bad healthy habits, your children will do as well
6. Revise the food that it is being given to your children in school. Write to the school board if you feel it is not nutritionally adequate. If it is possible for you, it is better to prepare food for them instead of relying on the school alone.
Teaching children and adolescents how to eat will guarantee they keep the healthy habits all their life. It is of course important to start young and make sure you’re following official guideline recommendations.