Childhood eating patterns can have long-term health effects. Although heart disease typically does not become symptomatic until adulthood, risk factors associated with heart disease may develop during childhood.
Dietary intake has a major impact on heart health. Eating large amounts of saturated fat has been associated with increased total cholesterol in childhood, which can ultimately increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Young children (under age 5) have the natural ability to adjust meal size according to energy needs. Children can lose this ability if parents assume control over the amount of food the child eats. If provided with a variety of healthy foods, children should not have difficulty consuming the right amounts of essential vitamins and minerals.
Caloric needs vary depending on your child's current growth rate, the amount of physical activity and your child's metabolism. It is important that children consume enough calories to ensure proper growth and to spare protein from being used for energy. However, many children, especially those who are not physically active, tend to consume too many calories.
Here are their required caloric needs:
- Ages 2 to 3, about 1,300 calories per day
- Ages 4 to 6, about 1,800 calories per day
- Ages 7 to 10, about 2,000 calories per day
The American Dietetic Association recommends that children consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Guidelines in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Food Guide Pyramid and the Food Guide Pyramid for Children are excellent tools.
Added sugar is a significant contributor to calorie intake in the U.S., with more than 150 pounds consumed per person per year. Many children drink large amounts of sugary beverages such as sodas and flavored powder drinks. In some cases, the calories consumed in added sugar can meet or exceed the child's entire daily caloric requirement. This results in excessive weight gain and may mean that other more nutritious foods are not being eaten. It is more beneficial to provide your child with unsweetened beverages like water and milk, and invest the calories in nutritious foods.
Added sugar should not exceed 10% of total calories. When choosing packaged foods, look carefully at the ingredient list for sugars with different names like glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose and syrups. When there are many of these sweeteners listed, and when they are toward the top of the ingredient list (ingredients are listed in descending order by weight), the product has a lot of added sugar.
Protein provides the building blocks for body growth and maintenance. On average, children in the U.S. consume considerably more protein than is required for health. Protein deficiency is relatively rare in children living in the U.S., but may be seen in children with certain medical conditions. As a rule of thumb, protein from a variety of sources (dairy, beans, lean meats) should constitute 12 to 15% of total calories.
Fat is an important nutrient, essential for normal growth and development in children. In the first two years of your child's life, dietary fat plays a key role in the formation of vital nerve and brain tissues. So, dietary fat should not be restricted for children under 2. After age 2, fat continues to play an important role as a source of energy, heat insulation, protection of vital organs and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Essential fatty acids, which humans cannot synthesize, are components of cell walls and play important roles in supporting the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. But dietary fat is another culprit in the excessive number of calories consumed by Americans. So, as children get older, consuming this extra dietary fat can lead to weight gain. By age 5, experts advise that children should follow the adult recommendations to limit total fat intake to 30% of calories, saturated fat intake to 10% of calories and cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams per day.
Children with low fiber intake are at risk for chronic constipation. High-fiber food has five grams or more of fiber per serving. Some experts recommend using the child's age plus five as a guideline for the grams of fiber that children should consume each day.
Because peak bone mass is accumulated in the first two decades of life, adequate calcium intake and exercise are critical for maximizing bone density that will help prevent osteoporosis later in life. Milk is a significant source of calcium, but many children will choose sugared drinks over milk, which reduces the likelihood that they will get adequate calcium each day.
The recommended calcium intake for school-aged children is 1,300 milligrams per day, which equals four servings a day of milk or dairy products. Calcium-fortified foods can be beneficial for children who are not consuming enough dairy products.