Nutrition by Age: Satisfy Nutritional Needs to Stay Healthy at Each Stage of Life
Good nutrition is the backbone of any healthy lifestyle. Without satisfying necessary caloric and nutritional needs, your body can’t keep you thriving. This includes everything from basic functions—like breaking down and removing waste and protecting itself against toxins—to growth, development, and maintaining energy levels. But what exactly is “good nutrition”?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. As your body grows, changes, and develops, so do your nutritional needs. Though the basics of nutrition stay the same throughout life, your nutritional needs will vary depending on your physical activity levels, lifestyle habits, and age. This article will focus on that last one: nutrition by age.
As your body changes from infancy to adulthood—and everything in between—it requires slightly different nutrients to optimize growth, development, and function. And some of these nutrients might not be what you’d expect! So take a closer look at some of the surprising nutritional needs for each age group.
Newborn Nutrition: 0-12 Months
Whether you decide to feed your newborn breastmilk, formula, or a combination of the two, your baby’s nutritional needs should be a top priority. In their first year of life, most babies more than double their weight. That’s a lot of growth—not to mention the brain development that occurs during this time period. All these changes in babies’ bodies require the proper fuel.
From birth until about six months, it’s recommended to feed your baby exclusively breast milk or newborn formula. This will help them acquire the fats, proteins, and other nutrients they need. If your infant is breastfeeding, their nutrients come from the person feeding them. For this reason, it’s important for that individual to stay on top of their own nutrition and supplement their diet with the nutrients their baby needs. So what exactly are those nutrients?
You’re probably familiar with the more common staples of infant nutrition—calcium to support bone strength and growth, for example—but let’s take a look at some of the less talked about nutritional needs of infants.
- Folate: The less-known vitamins and minerals are an often-overlooked aspect of nutrition. This is the case with folate, aka vitamin B9, which plays a vital role in cell division. And that’s one of the key processes behind infant growth and development.
To ensure your infant has appropriate amounts of folate in their diet, check their formula for the levels of vitamin B9. Or, if you’re breastfeeding your child, eat plenty of folate-rich foods, such as leafy greens and legumes.
- Zinc: No single nutrient is more important than the rest. That being said, if you were asked to name a nutrient as MVP of your diet, zinc would be a strong contender. The mineral helps maintain a healthy immune system, supports cellular growth and repair, and helps optimize DNA creation—all of which are important at any stage of life, but are especially vital for infants.
Babies born prematurely often have zinc deficiencies, which is a problem because they need zinc to catch up on their growth. When breastfeeding, be sure to stock up on zinc rich foods—nuts are a great, calorie-dense option!
Early Childhood: From Toddlers to Preteens
Growth and development don’t stop after infancy. From the terrible twos up through adolescence, the body continues to undergo rapid changes. It’s a formative time, and not just for an individual’s personality. Proper nutrition during these periods of change set the stage for a healthy adulthood. So what are some key nutritional needs for children and preteens?
- Fats: Pop nutrition has given fats a bad reputation. But not all fats are bad. In fact, some fats are a crucial part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. This is especially true when it comes to children’s nutrition.
When people talk about fat in food, they typically mean: saturated fats or trans fats. Children should eat saturated fats, or fats that come from meat, dairy, and eggs, in moderation. And trans fats, which are created when some foods are processed, should be avoided as much as possible.
But what about the good fats—the ones that can provide children with energy, support overall health, and help them process other nutrients? These fats are found in foods like olives, nuts, and seafood. And these beneficial forms should make up most of the fat in a child’s diet.
- Sodium: When it comes to sodium, the problem most children face is not too little of it in their diet, but far too much. Fast food is a frequent meal in many households. And understandably so: it’s quick, affordable, and picky eaters may actually eat it. But these foods also contain lots of sodium.
The recommended daily value for sodium changes with age. Young children—up until age four—only need about 1,500 mg of sodium per day, while preteens should take in up to 2,200 mg. According to a 2011 survey, 90% of children in the U.S. exceeded the recommended daily value for sodium, with average daily intake coming in at a whopping 3,256 mg per day. That’s more than 1,000 mg higher than the recommended value.
So what’s the big deal? In moderation, sodium is a vital part of a healthy diet. It helps nerves function, plays a role in muscle function, and helps the body maintain proper fluid balances. Too much sodium, however, can lead to blood pressure issues.
Adolescence: Nutrition During the Teenage Years
Parenting teenagers can be a challenge (to say the least). It’s a period marked by mental, emotional, and physical changes—all of which can be difficult to handle individually. Put these changes together, and you have the perfect storm. If there’s one thing teenagers need, though, it’s the space to exercise and explore their independence. And this might include choosing more of the foods they eat.
That being said, good nutrition should still be a priority. Adolescence is, after all, a period of change. And when the body changes, it requires fuel. Teens are likely familiar with the basics of their nutritional needs but might need some additional guidance when it comes to specific nutrients. The list below outlines a few of the unsung heroes of teen nutrition.
- Iron: You’ve maybe heard that iron-deficiency can lead to anemia—a condition that can lead to extreme fatigue. But maintaining energy levels isn’t all iron is good for. High iron intake is also crucial during periods of rapid growth—teenage growth spurts, for instance.
Monitoring your iron intake as a teen is especially important if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Meat, poultry, and fish are some of the most common sources of iron—if you don’t eat any of these foods, you’ll need to be extra diligent about eating other high-iron foods, such as beans, broccoli, and spinach.
- Sleep: This one is, admittedly, not a nutrient. But it is an often overlooked element of teen health. When it comes to adolescent growth and development, a well-balanced diet is only one piece of the puzzle—and sleep is the other. Sleep can help your immune system stay strong, helps support your brain and body to grow and develop, and can optimize mood and emotion regulation. As a teenager, you should sleep 8-10 hours a night. It might seem like a lot, but it’s worth it!
Getting enough sleep isn’t simply a matter of getting in bed at a reasonable time. A variety of other factors affect sleep including ambient noise, blue light exposure, and even diet. While there is no single nutrient that will solve your sleep problems, a well-balanced diet has been shown to support quality sleep. In this case, well balanced means supplying your body with enough magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. (Not sure where to find these nutrients? Take a look at this vitamin guide and essential mineral overview for a quick crash course!)
Nutrition Later in Life
If there’s one guarantee in life, it’s that you’re not getting any younger. And as you age, you might notice your body experiencing a little wear and tear. To a certain extent, this is inevitable. With the right diet and healthy lifestyle choices, however, you can help keep your body running smoothly well past 60.
They say that prevention is the best medicine—and by paying attention to your nutritional needs as you age, you can help keep yourself feeling good. You’ve probably heard that calcium is crucial for maintaining bone strength later in life, but that’s not all is needed at this stage of life. So let’s take a look at some of the less talked about nutrients.
- Magnesium: Calcium gets all the credit when it comes to supporting bone strength, but magnesium also plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy, strong bones. Additionally, it helps both the heart and immune system continue to function properly.
As you get older, your body absorbs magnesium less efficiently. This means you need more of this important in your diet to actually get the necessary amount. What’s more, many medications also affect magnesium absorption—so be sure to ask your doctor about any side effects!
- Water: Everybody needs to drink water. That never changes because healthy hydration is an important aspect of nutrition and a healthy life. However, some studies indicate that your body requires more water as you age. The effects of dehydration can also lead to more serious health consequences for older individuals. Fortunately, the remedy for dehydration is simple: just drink more water.
To ensure you are staying properly hydrated, look at your urine. It might not be the most pleasant part of your day, but it’s a simple way to check your hydration levels. If your urine is dark and cloudy or bright yellow, you likely aren’t drinking enough water. (There is an exception to remember with urine color. Even well hydrated individuals taking high dosages of vitamin C and B vitamins can have very bright yellow urine.) Typically, your urine should be somewhere between pale yellow to clear.
Nutrition by Age
As you age, your body grows, develops, and changes in countless ways. This probably isn’t news to you. Navigating these changes can be tough but properly satisfying your body’s nutritional needs at each stage of life can help optimize the aging process. And no matter your age, it’s never too late to start caring about nutrition. So, with what your read above as a guide, take charge of your health one nutrient at a time!