An individual’s need for nutrients and energy change throughout their lifespan. It is during a body’s growth periods that the need for nutrients is greatest. These occur during infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy.
Proper nutrition during the early months of life cannot be overemphasized as it also influences the structure and function of vital organs. Research shows that breastfeeding is good for both baby and mother. Breastfeeding has regained in popularity because of the nutritional benefits and antibodies (to protect against infection and allergies) that breast milk provides for the baby. Infants also need iron, as it is critical for brain development. While babies are born with a high iron store, most of it is used up within 6 months and therefore must be replenished. If a baby was born early, even more iron is needed, after a period of 3 months as iron stores are depleted during the ‘catch up’ time of the baby’s development.
Young children like to feed themselves. Children who have positive experiences during family meals are more likely to develop healthy attitudes. This is an opportunity to reinforce good eating habits and to introduce a wide variety of foods. Children have small stomachs and cannot eat a lot of food at one time. It is easier to eat several snacks and meals than to eat three large meals a day. It is important that children are fed a variety of immune-enhancing foods and immune supporting supplements such as Vitamin C, as their immune system is exposed to a variety of viruses and bacteria that they have not yet developed a resistance to.
A child’s body begins a period of rapid change in size and shape approximately around the age of 10 years in girls and 12 years in boys. This is called the “adolescent growth spurt.” During the next four years, an average girl may grow 10 inches taller and gain 40 to 50 pounds. An average boy may grow 12 inches taller and gain 50 to 60 pounds. At the same time, their body shape begins to change, too. The adolescent growth spurt requires many different nutrients. Calcium is especially important for bone growth and health because 45% of the bone an adult has is built up during adolescence. Iron is a critical nutrient as well as zinc. This stage in life requires a diet that can healthily satisfy caloric needs, as their metabolism and growth are at an all-time high.
Healthy eating can increase the chances of having a healthy baby. Gradual weight gain is important; 2-4 pounds during the first three months, then a little less than 1 pound per week for the remainder of the pregnancy. A total gain of 25-35 pounds is recommended. If a woman is overweight at the beginning of the pregnancy, she should not diet, but instead limit the amount of desserts and other “extras.” She needs to continue a gradual line of weight gain. In addition, a pregnant woman has specific water and fluid needs, including to:
- Drink at least 6-8 cups of water daily;
- Limit the amount of caffeinated beverages, soft drinks and sugared drinks
- Consume beverages that contain aspartame and saccharin sparingly.
Older adults often have special nutritional needs because they need fewer calories than younger people to stay at the same weight, and certain health problems become more common as people grow older. After the teen years, the need for calories decreases approximately 5% every 10 years. Thus, a 60-year old needs 20% fewer calories than a 20-year-old of the same weight. Recent studies have shown that although older adults need fewer calories, the requirements for protein and calcium were somewhat higher in older adults than in younger adults. One explanation for these results could be that older adults absorb these nutrients less efficiently. Thus, older adults should be encouraged to supplement. It is extremely important that older persons drink sufficient fluids to replace fluid losses. Dehydration is a serious threat to the elderly. Fluids should not be allowed to replace food at mealtimes, but should be offered during meals and encouraged between meals.