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:
CalciumFood surveys by the USDA show that as much as 60 percent of boys and 70 percent percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 11 fall short of the recommended daily calcium intake. What’s worse is that these numbers are likely to increase since milk — the primary source of calcium for most children — is steadily losing dietary ground to soda and fruit-flavored beverages. Despite the appeal of milk-mustached celebrities, children haven’t “got milk.” Nor do they have much of other calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, yogurt, and calcium-fortified orange juice and cereals.
The importance of calcium for growing bones should not be underestimated. “A person can only build up the integrity of their bones with good nutrition until about age twenty. After that it’s too late,” says Carol Coughlin, a registered dietitian and author of Good News About Good Food. “That’s why we say that osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences.” For optimal bone growth, and healthy teeth and muscle function, children ages 4 to 8 need 800 mg of calcium daily; ages 9 to 14 need 1,200 mg daily.
Best calcium sources:
- 1 cup cooked collard greens: 357 mg
- 8 ounces milk: 300 mg
- 8 ounces calcium-fortified orange juice: 300 mg
- 1 ounce sesame seeds: 280 mg
- 1 ounce part-skim mozzarella: 210 mg
- 1 cup cooked kale: 180 mg
FiberChronic constipation in children is a problem that pediatricians are treating more and more often. The cause? Diets that are filled with refined, processed foods that lack the natural fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that is essential for keeping the intestinal tract in good working order. Fiber itself is not a nutrient because it is not absorbed during digestion, but the body definitely needs it for optimal health — not just for avoiding constipation. Soluble fiber (the kind in beans and oats) can also prevent heart disease because it corrals and eliminates bad fats that would otherwise get absorbed and transformed into blood cholesterol; insoluble fiber (the kind in whole-grain breads and cereals) fights cancer because it shuttles waste, including cancer-causing substances, through the intestines quickly. There’s no established children’s RDA for fiber, but if kids were to meet the USDA’s dietary guideline for eating fruits and vegetables — about 3 servings of each daily — they’d be sure to get enough fiber.
Best fiber sources:
- 1/2 cup cooked kidney beans: 6.6 g
- 1 cup broccoli, cooked: 5.4 g
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal: 4.0 g
- 1 cup strawberries: 3.9 g
- 2 slices whole-wheat bread: 3.4 g
- 1 apple, unpeeled: 3.6 g
- 1/2 cup raspberries: 2.6 g
FatsIt’s a four-letter word to most of us, but the truth is that fats, especially certain kinds, are essential to good health. It’s unfortunate, perhaps even dangerous, that our culture has developed such a prejudice against fat in foods. “The low-fat, no-fat movement has really backfired, especially for our children,” says Dr. Monaco. “Sure, it eliminates bad fats that can cause heart disease, but it also wipes out the good fats — such as linolenic fatty acids that are major structural components of brain cells, nervous-system cells, hormones, and immune-system cells. Kids who are constantly growing need even more fat than adults. We simplistically think that fat on our bodies comes from fat in our food, not realizing that it’s a very important nutrient.”
Good fats — namely monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids — are generally found in liquid vegetable oils like olive, corn, canola, and safflower oil. These fats supply the body with cellular building blocks as well as mechanisms to keep blood cholesterol levels down. Saturated fats — the “bad” ones — are found in meats, butter, lard, and other solid fats; they tend to raise cholesterol and fat levels in the blood.
How much good fat a child needs depends on how many calories he consumes overall. Most health experts recommend that children get about 30 percent of calories from fat. So how does that translate into fat grams per day? The answer lies in a two quick calculations:
Total calories x 0.30 (calories from fat) = recommended calories from fat per day
Calories from fat divided by 9 (the number of calories per fat gram) = grams of fat in foods
For example, if a child eats 1,800 calories: 1,800 x 0.30 = 540 calories from fat; 540 (divided by) 9 = 60 grams of fat — an amount you can look for on labels. For most preschoolers who burn about 1,200 calories per day, their fat gram quota would be 40; elementary-age kids who use 1,500 calories per day can afford 50 fat grams. That might sound like a lot, but the a typical fast-food lunch of a cheeseburger and small french fries racks up about 28 grams of fat — and mostly the bad kind.
However, a peanut-butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread with an apple and a 1/4 cup of raisins has only 11 grams of good fat (plus plenty of other healthy stuff like fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals). When considering fat, remember balance is best.
ZincIf there were an annual MVP award for nutrients, zinc would be the winner. It’s now recognized as one of the most active minerals in the body, by virtue of its presence in a multitude of enzymes. Without zinc our bodies could not digest protein, turn food into energy, or fight infections. Zinc deficiency in children leads to poor growth, anemia, and an impaired ability to heal. The best sources of this nutrient are meat, fish, and poultry products. However, if your child is a vegetarian, plant sources of zinc include whole-grain cereals, beans, seeds, and nuts. The RDA for zinc for children 3 to 10 years of age is 10 mg; for 11- to 18-year-olds the RDA jumps to 15 mg because teenagers especially need zinc for healthy sexual development.
Best zinc sources:
- 4 ounces flank steak: 5 mg
- 4 ounces dark-meat chicken: 3 mg
- 1 cup fortified oat flakes cereal: 1.5 mg
- 2 slices whole-wheat bread: 1.2 mg
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds: 1 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked lentils: 1 mg
- 3 ounces white-meat turkey: 1 mg