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What's Missing From Your Child's Diet?

Creating a healthy diet for a child is kind of like working on a jigsaw puzzle every day. If parents can fit all the essential pieces -- fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and protein-rich foods -- then the healthy puzzle is complete. (Of course, you still have to persuade kids to gobble up the pieces.)

Finding that magic assortment of foods seems harder than ever. The puzzle is more complicated and confusing, and there are a multitude of competing pieces -- like fast foods, high-sugar sweets, fat-laden snacks. The result is that these newfangled foods are leaving dietary gaps where the good stuff once was. Ironically, experts say, at the beginning of this high-tech century, our kids may actually be missing out on more nutrients than did children of the previous century. "Nutritionally, progress is taking us backward. A hundred years ago children generally ate what was fresh and seasonal -- foods were unprocessed and natural," says John Monaco, M.D., director of Pediatric Intensive Care at Brandon Hospital in Tampa, FL, and coauthor of Slim & Fit Kids: Raising Healthy Children in a Fast Food World. "We point to our increased life expectancy as a sign that we're doing things better, but that has more to do with modern medicine than modern diets. We could improve our children's health and longevity even more if we fed them whole foods again."

What's a Parent to Do?

According to a report by the National Cancer Institute, only 1 percent of children between ages 2 and 19 meet all the USDA Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for grains, vegetables, fruit, meats, and dairy. What's more, 16 percent meet none of the recommendations. It's no wonder then that we hear a steady drumbeat of warnings from health experts about nutrients that are missing-in-action from our kids' diets.

So what's a parent to do? First, be aware that in many ways our food supply is distorted, full of new processed choices that kids find irresistible but that have little nutritional value (they don't call it "junk" food for nothing!). And be vigilant in limiting these dietary weaklings. Show your children the nutritional high road, but don't panic if they don't always take it. Even the best eaters hit a few bumps and detours now and then. "Look at the big picture -- how they eat over several weeks, not just a few days," says Dr. Monaco.

Finally, keep a few numbers in mind -- nutritional scores, if you will, of the amounts of vitamins and minerals that your child needs, plus where to find them. Here's the ledger on some of the most at-risk nutrients: