6 Essential Nutrients for Kids

6 Essential Nutrients for Kids

Reviewed By: Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD 
Written By Else Team
Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance writer with 13-years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. She is the author of three books, including the Anti-Inflammatory Diet One Pot Cookbook. Through her writing, she demonstrates her passion for helping people achieve ideal health and make transformational changes in their lives.

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A balanced diet is essential for the healthy growth of every child. As children grow up, their vital organs expand and their brain develops, but in order for this process to take place in the best possible way, children need to have a diet that provides them with all the essential nutrients.

Any type of undernutrition at this point in life can affect growth and therefore be particularly damaging to children. This is why parents need to be very careful about integrating all the essential nutrients their kids need when preparing meal plans and developing healthy eating habits and routines.

We put together a list of the six essential nutrients for kids that you should make sure they're getting on a daily basis.

6 essential nutrients for kids

Protein

Protein is an essential nutrient and the fundamental constituent of all living tissues, including muscles and organs. This helps a child's body build cells, fight infection, break down food into energy, and carry oxygen. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of tissues in children and adults as well, but children shouldn't miss it even for a day because the growth process could be affected.

The primary sources of protein include:

  • Meat
  • Eggs 
  • Fish
  • Dairy products including cheese and yogurt
  • Beans, legumes
  • Tofu and soy products

Breastmilk or formula should be the exclusive source of protein for babies younger than six months. Older children can get their protein intake from a mix of animal and plant-based protein.

The daily amount of protein recommended is based on the child's weight, but it should typically be on average 1 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Ideally, a child should eat a variety of protein from both plant and animal sources.

Protein may be a particular nutrient of interest for children who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. If you are simply vegetarian, dairy, eggs, or cheese can be good sources.  

Vegan diets are more challenging to balance in terms of protein, so parents should carefully watch their children's protein intake. A well balanced vegan diet will ensure that your child doesn’t suffer from many deficiencies or problems with growth..

Quality of animal and vegetable proteins

The quality of protein varies depending on the food. Protein of animal origin contain all nine essential amino acids and are therefore considered “complete. Only a few vegetable proteins (soy, quinoa, buckwheat) fall into that category and are of excellent quality. 

For other vegetable proteins to provide all nine essential amino acids, they must be combined with other complementary foods. . These combinations don't necessarily need to be made during the same meal.

Here are examples of associations that make plant proteins complete:

Legumes + grain products (e.g., black beans + rice)

Legumes + nuts or seeds (e.g., hummus made from chickpeas + almond butter) 

Each of these supplements one or more amino acids that might be missing in the other. If your child does follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, it is essential to have an understanding of complimentary foods to include in your diet.

Carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates are found in many of the foods we eat, and they provide about 60% of the energy we need.

Some foods that contain carbohydrates include: 

  • Bread
  • Cereals
  • Starchy foods (potatoes, rice, pasta, semolina)
  • Certain tuberous vegetables (carrots, beets)
  • Pulses (peas, beans, lentils)

Carbohydrates are also in foods containing refined sugar, but these are much less nutritious than those in non-processed foods and provide few essential vitamins and minerals.

Infants and children need more carbohydrates than adults. The recommended percentage of carbs in a child's diet is 50 to 55% of the total daily energy intake.

When choosing carbs for your child’s diet, it's essential to focus on complex carbohydrates to provide the necessary energy for the day and a hefty dose of fiber. Highly refined or sweetened carb choices should not represent more than 10% of the total daily energy intake.

It's impossible to talk about carbohydrates without mentioning sugar. Sugar is everywhere, especially in children's foods. 

When we talk about sugars, this includes added sugars and those naturally found in foods, such as milk and fruit.

In addition to causing cavities and other dental issues, sugar is linked to several health problems. In the long term, excess sugar therefore increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Sugar is also believed to be associated with certain cancers.

As such, it's advisable to limit the consumption of added sugar to your child’s diet. Sugar provides little nutritional value to support the rapid growth of a child.

carbohydrates

Fats

Fats provide twice the amount of energy than carbohydrates and proteins. They also promote the absorption of certain vitamins. The main sources of fats are: 

  • Vegetable oils and fats
  • Nuts
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • The olives
  • Eggs
  • Cheese

Many children consume more fat than they need. Fat needs vary from person to person, but they should never exceed 30%of the daily calories.. It's possible to reduce fat intake by consuming fewer processed foods, lower-fat dairy products, and lean meat foods.

Even though an excess of fat should be avoided, it's essential to include certain kinds of fats, such as essential fatty acids, in children's diets since they play an important role in brain growth and development. Essential fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, fish,  and nuts.

Calcium 

Calcium represents 2% of our body weight. Even though it's concentrated mainly in the bones and the teeth, calcium has an essential role in the functioning of allof our cells. . Calcium is involved in multiple functions that are essential to the body, ranging from blood coagulation and muscle contraction to regulating hormone activity.

This is what you need to know about calcium: 

  • It's essential for the mineralization of bones and teeth
  • Vitamin D allows its fixation on the bones
  • It's found in dairy products, tofu and some drinking waters
  • Calcium deficiency in babies and young kids is a risk factor for rickets, a disease that softens the bones and causes stunted growth

Some examples of calcium-rich foods for kids include: 

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Calcium-fortified drinks, like Else Nutrition
  • Edamame (soybeans)
  • Calcium-set tofu
  • Almonds and sesame seeds
  • Broccoli, chard, collard greens, kale, Chinese cabbage, and other leafy greens
  • Oranges, figs, and prunes
  • White beans, red beans, and chickpeas 

Since calcium is such an important nutrient for the healthy development of children, many food companies add it to fortify foods. Therefore it can also be found in bread, cereal, juice, and other foods children are likely to consume.

How much calcium does my kid need?

how much calcium does my kid need

Children need different amounts of calcium at different stages of development. Calcium is measured in milligrams (mg).

  • Babies under 6 months need 200 mg calcium / day
  • Babies between 6 and 11 months need 260 mg calcium / day
  • Children 1 to 3 years old need 700 mg calcium / day
  • Children 4 to 8 years old need 1,000 mg calcium / day
  • Children and teens 9 to 18 years old need 1,300 mg calcium / day

Iron 

Iron is one of the minerals that babies and children need to be healthy and thrive. 

Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen to all cells in the body. Iron is essential to make hemoglobin. In the absence of enough iron, the red blood cells become pale and small, and they won't be able to carry enough oxygen to the organs and muscles in the body. This is called anemia. 

Babies and children need iron for their brains to develop normally. Babies who don't get enough iron may be less active and have trouble with proper growth. They may also exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Slower weight gain
  • Pale skin
  • Lack of appetite
  • Irritability (moody, difficult)

In older children, iron deficiency may affect school performance. Children may have difficulty concentrating, and the lack of iron can also make them feel tired and weak.

Some good sources of iron include:  

  • Red meat
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Beans
  • Tuna
  • Eggs
  • Iron-fortified cereal

How much iron does my child need?

Up to 6 months, the recommended iron intake is based on the average amount found in breast milk. Recommended intakes increase significantly at 7 months, as the baby's iron stores are depleted, and growth requires a lot of iron. This is also the period of life when the iron needs are the highest in relation to weight.

In addition to changing with age, the need for iron also varies according to the type of diet adopted. For example, the need for iron is 1.8 times higher in vegetarians, because iron from plants is not as well absorbed as what is found in animal foods.

Sources of iron

There are two forms of iron in the human body: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body. This kind of iron is only found in animal muscle fibers, that is, in meat, chicken, fish. 

Non-heme iron, found in plants, is not well absorbed compared to heme iron. However, it is possible to increase the level of iron absorption from plant-based foods.  

Simply serve the food that contains non-heme iron with a fruit or vegetable that contains vitamin C (e.g., pepper, tomato , cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potato, Brussels sprout, grapefruit, strawberry, raspberry, kiwi, melon and mango). Optimizing iron intake and absorption is particularly important for vegan and vegetarian children.

Should children be given iron supplements? 

The only children for whom iron supplements are generally indicated are babies 1 year and younger born prematurely. Ask your pediatrician for more information.

Term infants are born with a reserve of iron. Breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formulas provide them, but their reserves still run out around 4 to 6 months of age. 

Fiber 

Fiber is the structural carbohydrate found in plants. In the human body, fiberis not digested completely. It is resistant to our digestive enzymes and are therefore not absorbed. It only serves as bulk in the digestive tract, helping move food along. This also means that fiber is not a source of energy (calories).

Fiber is present in a variety of foods. As mentioned above, dietary fiber is found in foods of plant origin. So dairy products, meats, poultry, fish, and eggs do not provide dietary fiber.

Here are some foods that provide fiber:

  • Grain products, especially whole grain and those containing bran (wheat bran, oat bran)
  • All vegetables and fruits; dried fruit
  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, soup peas, red beans, white beans, soybeans, mung beans, mixed legumes, etc.)
  • Peanuts, nuts, seeds; peanut, nut or seed butter

Fiber requirements will gradually increase as your child grows and develops. A healthy diet adapted to the child's needs for their age will provide them with the amount of dietary fiber they need.

Feeding your child- From Infancy to the Teen Years

Breast milk (or iron-fortified infant formula) forms the basis of your child's diet for the first six months. Exclusive breastfeeding (only breast milk, no other food) is the best nutrition during this period.

Then comes the gradual introduction of solid food to provide the baby with additional nutrients. Cereals, vegetables, fruits, and for some, legumes, are more than sufficient for fiber intake during this transition period.

Around one year, baby should eat different foods from the following four groups: grain products, vegetables and fruit, dairy products, and meats or alternatives. This is a period of rapid growth, and Else Nutrition products may help supplement your toddler’s diet.

With every year that passes, your child will eat slightly larger portions, but the same principles apply. A diet based in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins is optimal for growth and development.

These are just six of the nutrients kids need to develop properly and be healthy. Ensuring their diet is well-balanced will help them achieve all of their goals and milestones.

The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.