Add as bookmark

Nutrition for Children and Young Adults

by June Butlin(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 34 - November 1998

Quality nutrition is very important for children's health, as it is likely to result in good eating patterns in later life, and is essential for optimum growth and development. Research is now proving that the long-term repercussions of eating poor quality food can result in significant health problems such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, bowel disease, poor bone development and dental disease.

The quality of children's diets has declined in recent years due to a combination of factors. These include: deterioration in the quality of school meals, the commercial pressure to eat processed foods, peer pressure and family practices. Skipping meals, particularly breakfast is prevalent among teenagers. Also, a fear of being overweight, because of the media's portrayal of the ideal figure, is resulting in eating disorders.

Children and young adults seem to have very little knowledge of food values and their relevance to health and vitality. They are bombarded with subtle television advertisements to lure them into eating foods that are full of fat, salt and sugar. We can see the results of this in the 1990 Food Commission Survey of the popular foods for children.

Highest on the list were Kellogg's Coco Pops, Birds Eye Potato Waffles and Sugar Puffs. All of these foods contain very few nutrients and lots of anti-nutrients in the form of simple sugar, additives, colours, and preservatives.

Children and parents are often misled to believe that certain foods and drinks are healthy. If we take one example of this, 'Ribena Tooth Kind', we find that the British Dental Association endorse this product and parents are now associating the name Ribena with 'health'.

However, it is made from diluted fruit juice and artificial sweeteners, which can be just as damaging as other sugar solutions to teeth. It is also extremely acidic, which increases the risk of erosion, making teeth more susceptible to decay.

Children's diets should sustain growth, promote health and be enjoyable. At times of growth spurts physiological changes occur which influence nutritional requirements. If these are not met, they can affect susceptible children in numerous ways such as reduced concentration and intelligence, hyperactive behaviour, reduced energy, illnesses and increased risks of degenerative diseases.

Research is revealing that many children do not get enough vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc, vitamins B1 and B6, magnesium, essential fatty acids, calcium and iron in their diets. If we look at the repercussions of such diets we find that a lack of zinc may result in behavioural problems, sleep disorders and impaired growth and development. Lack of vitamins B1 and B6 may produce fatigue, depression and learning difficulties. Depleted levels of magnesium may result in sleep disturbances, muscle cramps and tiredness and low levels of essential fatty acids may result in learning difficulties and skin problems.

Two of the most important minerals for children are iron and calcium. Iron is needed in higher levels during adolescence due to increases in lean body mass, blood volume and haemoglobin, and menstrual losses in girls. A low dietary iron intake, particularly caused by vegetarian and vegan diets, can increase the risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Foods rich in iron should be eaten regularly and can be found in meat, pulses, beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Vitamin C aids iron absorption and should also be encouraged. Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, muscular contraction and nerve transmission. At the peak of the growth spurt about 200 mg of calcium per day in girls and 300 mg in boys is retained. The consequences of inadequate calcium may result in failure to attain peak bone mass in adulthood and may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis in later life. It may also affect nervous and muscular function. Good sources of calcium can be obtained from green leafy vegetables, fish, beans, and seeds. Milk is not a good source as it fails to supply adequate magnesium that is necessary for good absorption.

Guidelines for children's diets are to eat less sugar, fat and salt, and to eat more vegetables and fruit. The ideal would be to choose a good quality wholefood diet, and avoid additives, colour, preservatives, sugar, salt and sugar substitutes

Children should eat from each of the following food groups every day to achieve a varied supply of nutrients:

  • Dairy and dairy alternatives: reduced fat dairy produce, eggs, soya products.
  • Cereals and starchy vegetables: bread, rice, potatoes, millet, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats, barley, wheat.
  • Fruit and vegetables: all types of fruit, fruit juices, vegetables, salads.
  • Meat and meat alternatives: white meat, white and oily fish, beans, lentils, peas, eggs, tofu, quorn.
  • Essential fatty acids: cold pressed oils - safflower and sunflower, oily fish, linseeds, nuts and seeds.
  • Drinks: bottled or filtered water, fresh fruit juice diluted 50% with spring or carbonated water, vegetable juices, fruit flavoured herb teas.

Packed lunch suggestions

  • Ryvitas, wholemeal bread, rye bread, rice cakes, oat cakes with one of the following: salad, cottage cheese, honey, sugar free jam, mashed avocado, nut butter, humus, quark, tahini, banana, lean meat and fish.
  • Nut slices, vegetable slices, tofu slices, salad with chicken or fish, rice salad, bean salad.
  • Pasta with sweetcorn and Tuna, cold baked potato with fillings. All fruits.
  • Treats: Nuts and raisins, natural fruit and nut bars without sugar, natural yoghurt with added fruit, cakes made with pureed apricots or dates, low fat crisps, dried fruit.

However, many children will not be receptive to drastic changes in their diets and their growing independence may make them oppose any intervention by parents. They are also unlikely to be greatly motivated by the long-term deterioration in health as a result of poor eating habits. A starting point would be to establish exciting, nutritious meals at home, which will provide some nutritional education for the younger children.

Teenagers may be more difficult, but their interests may lie in looking and feeling good and in varying sporting activities. If they can associate good eating habits with healthy skin, hair, teeth, a good physique and to better sports performance they are more likely to listen and follow quality recommendations.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About June Butlin

June M Butlin PhD is a trained teacher, nutritionist, kinesiologist, aromatherapist, fitness trainer and sports therapist. She is a writer, health researcher and lecturer and is committed to helping people achieve their optimum level of health and runs a private practice in Wiltshire. June can be contacted on 01225 869 284;

top of the page