In the first few years of life, little bodies need essential nutrients to ensure they grow and develop both physically and mentally. Energy needs are high for their size, to support the rapid growth that occurs at this age. Early childhood is also a time of learning and experiencing new foods, with different textures, tastes and smells. These experiences are really important to help shape healthy eating habits for life.
A varied diet is also important as children get older to help them get the essential nutrients they need every day. Key nutrients for kids’ growth include high quality protein which provides essential building blocks to help them reach their growth potential and calcium and vitamin D to help keep bones strong as they grow. To ensure kids make the most of every day, vitamin A is important for a healthy immune system, and zinc and iron support mental performance so they are primed and ready for learning at school.
Fussy eating can be a problem for some children but a few simple tips may help: try and involve your kids in shopping and food preparation, offer nutritious snacks if mealtimes are a struggle and make mealtimes a positive experience. If food is not eaten, just take it away rather than having it be the focus of an argument. Keep offering foods even if they have refused them before. It can sometimes take up to 10 times for a child to accept a new food.
The teenage years can be challenging… and not just for parents! There are significant physical and emotional changes around the time of puberty. As well as maturing sexually, the rate at which muscles grow and strong bones are built increases. Because the greatest increase in bone mass occurs post-puberty, adolescence provides a particularly critical window of opportunity to build strong bones for later in life. For this reason, it’s really important to make sure bones get the nutrients they need at this age, especially calcium.
Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are well known as a rich source of calcium but did you know they also contain other nutrients which are essential for bones like high quality protein and phosphorus? Some dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that helps calcium absorption.
As well as thinking about essential bone nutrients, it’s also important for teenage girls in particular to include iron-rich foods such as red meat, chicken, mussels, spinach, tofu and kidney beans in their diet once puberty hits.
Adolescence is also a time of increasing independence and autonomy with food. Unfortunately, if left to their own devices, teens often choose junk foods and sugary drinks over more nutritious options like milk. Encourage water and plain milk as the best beverage choices where possible and use healthy snacks as a way to combat hunger between meals (and sneak in a bit more nutrition where you can!). Nutritious grab-n-go breakfast options like smoothies or fruit and wholegrain toast can be helpful for teens that don’t sit still long enough to eat breakfast at the table.
After all those years of growth, development and change, adulthood is all about maintaining that healthy body we’ve spent years building. Good nutrition with enough protein, calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus is important to help maintain healthy bones and muscles – both of which naturally tend to decrease as we age. B vitamins and iron help us stay active and full of energy as we go about our daily lives.
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods, rather than kilojoule (calorie)-dense treats, goes a long way to giving you all the nutrients you need to feel great and stay healthy. This will help to maintain an ideal body weight and reduce the risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Pregnancy and breastfeeding bring their own special nutrition needs as requirements for certain nutrients increase to support the growing foetus and baby, as well as mum.
Some nutrients are particularly important during pregnancy. Getting enough iron can help reduce fatigue and folate is important for the first three months of pregnancy for the healthy development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. While vitamin A is still essential during pregnancy, it’s important not to get too much as very high levels of vitamin A can increase the risk of birth defects. Due to the unique requirements and potential safety concerns during pregnancy, it’s important to consult with a health professional for expert nutrition advice.
While the adage of “eating for two” is not a licence to eat twice the food, energy needs are a bit higher in the second and third trimesters, and while breastfeeding. To help provide the extra nutrition that’s needed for both mum and baby, those additional kilojoules (calories) should come from nutrient-rich foods such as dairy, lean protein sources, fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains.
Concerns around health naturally play a part in our senior years. Continuing to eat a varied and balanced diet and being active is as important as ever to help us stay healthy and active and maintain quality of life. As we age, we may eat less than previously for a number of reasons such as reduced appetite, medications or dental issues. In that case, eating ‘little and often’ can be an effective way to get sufficient essential nutrients, especially protein, calcium and vitamin D for mobility and folate and vitamin B12 to support an active mind.
So, while our nutrition needs may change throughout our lives, there are a few key principles that are important for everyone. Enjoying a variety of foods and drinks and choosing nutritious options like milk, cheese, yoghurt, fruit, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, legumes and nuts is the best way to get the essential nutrients needed for growth, mental and physical performance.
Dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt naturally contain a range of essential nutrients including high quality protein, calcium, B vitamins, phosphorus and potassium - a great part of a varied diet for optimal health no matter what your age.