Although good nutrition in children is based on the same rules as those in adults, it would be wrong to assume that a child is a miniature copy of an adult. There are different and proportionally greater needs as an individual grows up than for simply maintaining their bodily functions. Similarly, the body’s nutritional requirements do not stay the same throughout all the phases of childhood and pre-adolescence; they change according to age and growth stage.
One of the most important requirements, just like in adults, is water. The percentage of water content in the body is greater in children than in adults, and the ability to maintain a correct water balance is lower, because water losses, both renal (urine) and extra-renal (sweat), are greater. Babies need to drink, even during the breastfeeding phase. In particular, during the early stages of life, it is good to introduce low-mineral waters so as not to over-work the kidneys, and sugary drinks should be avoided.
In childhood, due to the rate of growth, the need for energy and protein is proportionally greater than in adulthood. At 6 years old, the average energy requirement of a child with a normal level of physical activity is between 1500 and 1600 kcal, and therefore, proportionately speaking, is well above that of an adult. The same can be said for proteins, since the recommended daily intake of this is 0.99 g per kg of body weight at 7-10 years, dropping to 0.90 g per kg of body weight in adults.
In adults, most of their energy intake must be provided by carbohydrates. But these must be in the form of starches (therefore bread, pasta and baked goods but also potatoes and legumes) while sugars, and therefore sweet foods, must be limited. It is important to note that children must also introduce dietary fibre, so it is best to opt for whole foods and also add legumes to the diet. And of course we can’t forget the “at least 5 portions” rule for fruit and vegetables.
Both in childhood and adulthood, the intake of saturated fats must be limited, but it is equally important to consume foods containing unsaturated fats, in particular omega-3 fats. For this reason it is essential that fish is present in the child’s diet.
It is very important that children consume the correct amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Regarding the latter, remember that the recommended intake of calcium, phosphorus and iron is generally greater in childhood compared to adulthood, and that moderate sodium intake is also recommended in children. So we must teach children not to add salt to food, and provide them with the right rules for healthy eating from an early age. You never forget what you learn as a child, and knowing how to eat well from an early age is a treasure trove of knowledge that will help children become healthy adults.
Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences
University of Bologna