Childhood marks a time of great change and new experiences that play crucial roles in the present and future years for children. Childhood is defined as ages 5-10, where children require adequate nutrition that matches their increased energy needs to support continuous growth spurts. Every child is different; therefore, their needs are highly dependent on activity level and growth. That said, as their age increases, the foundational requirements that need to be met remain the same in regard to protein, vitamins, and minerals. Keep in mind, their body is constantly working to accumulate nutrient stores in preparation of these metabolic changes as they age.
Why is good nutrition important for young children?
More than any other period of life, childhood demands the greatest nutrient supply as they experience increased energy intake to support growth and development. Additionally, it’s more than just the quantity of nutrient requirements, it’s the quality that is important as well. Their nutrient supply during childhood controls the function and maintenance of tissues and organs, which will carry into their adult life and could have long-term consequences on health if left unsupported.1
During childhood, the brain develops at a faster rate than any other part of the body. Although cognitive development is influenced by a wide range of factors, nutrition has been attributed to improving peak brain function. Nutrients supply a multitude of building blocks that participate in fundamental roles such as cell production, DNA synthesis, neurotransmitter metabolism, hormone balance, as well as providing essential components for enzymatic functions in the brain.2
Calcium and Vitamin D
Vitamin D and calcium are thought to be more linked in nutritional metabolism than any other two nutrients. Vitamin D intake is essential in reaching the maximum accumulation of calcium in the body as vitamin D is required to absorb calcium. Both vitamin D and calcium are inherently programmed to aid in skeletal growth as they enhance development and maintenance of bone mineral content; i.e. strong healthy bones in childhood will help to keep bones strong in adulthood.
It is extremely important to maintain an adequate intake of vitamin D to ensure optimal calcium absorption, especially in childhood, to keep up with the rapid growth and necessary development to minimise the risk of bone loss later in life. Not only are calcium and vitamin D important in skeletal health, but these nutrients also maintain muscle metabolism. If children do not receive adequate intake of vitamin D or calcium, their bodies risk reaching their greatest growth potential.3
Generally speaking, the majority of individuals receive adequate amounts of calcium. However, a good portion of these individuals do not receive adequate amounts of vitamin D. Although the body uses sunlight to synthesise vitamin D upon sun exposure to the skin, there are numerous foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D to ensure sufficient intake. Calcium can be found in dairy products, vegetables like broccoli and kale, as well as calcium-fortified cereals. Vitamin D can be found in salmon, tuna, and fortified milk, yoghurt, and soy drinks.4
Children require vitamin A as it plays significant roles in the immune system function, vision development and maintenance, reproduction, and cell communication. During childhood, where nutritional demand is high, insufficient intake of vitamin A is strongly correlated with health consequences.5
Well known for its role in vision, vitamin A supports cornea function and is a component of a protein essential in the retinal receptors ability to absorb light. Not only does vitamin A support vision, it also contributes to cell growth and diversity, as well as assists in growth and maintenance of vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.6
Vitamin A has the longest and most extensive history as it was the first vitamin discovered and named by two Yale researchers in 1913. Lafayette Mendel and Thomas Osborne revealed that butter contained a fat-soluble nutrient, in which they soon named as vitamin A. In 1947, Vitamin A’s first synthesized form was created.7
There are two different forms of vitamin A, preformed and provitamin A, but both are converted to retinol – the form of vitamin A found in the body used in metabolic processes. Common food sources that contain preformed vitamin A are milk and eggs, while provitamin A (otherwise known as carotenoids) food sources are green leafy vegetables, oranges, yellow vegetables, and fruits. In the U.S. diet, the major food sources for vitamin A are found in dairy, fish, carrots, broccoli, and fortified cereals.8
Among the most important nutrients that support childhood growth and development, Vitamin C is extremely important as it assists in the development and repair of red blood cells, bones, and tissues within the body. Vitamin C supports healthy gums, reinforces blood vessel strength to minimise bruising, as well as accelerating the rate of wound healing, reducing infection, and significantly improving the body’s immune system.
Additionally, vitamin C plays an important role in forming collagen, cartilage and muscle, therefore maintaining integrity of skin. Although there is no clear mechanism, vitamin C is thought to be a key factor in the body’s overall immune function as there are high concentrations found within the immune cells. Interestingly, the highest concentration of vitamin C is present within the nerve endings in the brain. Vitamin C aids in the formation of neurotransmitters - the main signalling network in the nervous system. Vitamin C influences the expansion and function of nervous tissue and is also required in the metabolic process to convert dopamine to noradrenaline.9
Unfortunately, the body does not have the ability to produce Vitamin C, therefore it’s very important to ensure your bod’s demands are met. This requires external sources of vitamin C, which can be obtained through the consumption of plant sources like citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, kiwi, and broccoli. Vitamin C deficiency has been shown to adversely impact physical and mental growth during childhood, which can impair their immune defence, contributing to additional health issues. Although extremely rare, vitamin C deficiency causes a condition called scurvy. Scurvy is one of the oldest nutritional deficiencies ever reported, as early as the ancient Egyptians. Those who are affected by this condition may show symptoms of rough skin, dental issues, as well as weakness or body discomfort, abnormal emotional behaviour, delayed wound healing, and nervous system issues.10
Iodine is vital during all stages of life. It is required for adequate bone and brain development in early life and is particularly critical during childhood because the body requires it to synthesise thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones contribute to various functions in the body, including the control of metabolic processes. Iodine is part of a hormone called Thyroxin, which is produced by the thyroid gland and regulates the rate of physical and mental development in the body. So, it’s easy to see how important iodine consumption is for children and necessary to reach optimal physical and mental potential.
The singular source of iodine is dietary and dependent on its presence in water and soil. The majority of iodine is obtained from foods grown in iodine-rich soil, particularly vegetables, while drinking water typically fills the remainder of the body’s requirements. Iodine deficiencies are associated with imperative consequences on a child's learning capability and overall quality of life.
The deficiency disorder associated with iodine is named IDD (Iodine Deficiency Disorder) and said to be the most common endocrine disease in the world, as well as the most preventable cause of mental retardation.11
- Koletzko, B. (2008). Basic concepts in nutrition: Nutritional needs of children and adolescents. e-SPEN, the European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism, 4(3), e179-e184.
- Nyaradi, A., Li, J., Hickling, S., Foster, J., & Oddy, W. H. (2013). The role of nutrition in children's neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 97.
- Holick, M. F. (2005). The influence of vitamin D on bone health across the life cycle. The Journal of nutrition, 135(11), 2726S-2727S.
- Abrams, S. A. (2001). Calcium turnover and nutrition through the life cycle. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 60(2), 283-289.
- Johnson EJ, Russell RM. Beta-Carotene. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:115-20.
- Ross CA. Vitamin A. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:778-91.
- Ross A. Vitamin A and Carotenoids. In: Shils M, Shike M, Ross A, Caballero B, Cousins R, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 10th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2006:351-75.
- Solomons NW. Vitamin A. In: Bowman B, Russell R, eds. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. 9th ed. Washington, DC: International Life Sciences Institute; 2006:157-83.
- Maggini, S., Wenzlaff, S., & Hornig, D. (2010). Essential role of vitamin C and zinc in child immunity and health. Journal of International Medical Research, 38(2), 386-414.
- Bourre, J. M. (2006). Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 1: micronutrients. Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging, 10(5), 377.
- Ahad, F., & Ganie, S. A. (2010). Iodine, iodine metabolism and iodine deficiency disorders revisited. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 14(1),13.