5 Nutrients Your Child May Be Missing

Many kids fall short in 5 essential nutrients — is your child one?

By: Elizabeth M. Ward for WebMD
child-eatingAmerica’s children are missing out on five essential nutrients critical to their growth and good health. Coming up short are calcium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, and potassium, according to the latest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” from the U.S. government.

Are your kids getting enough of these vital nutrients? Read on to find out which nutrients your child may lack, why, and how to get these five essential nutrients back into your child’s diet.

Calcium: A Bone-Building Essential Nutrient

Calcium is best known for optimizing bone growth and contributing to a fracture-free skeleton during childhood and decades later. The majority of calcium is found in bone tissue, but calcium also circulates in the blood stream.

Blood calcium serves a vital role, participating in normal heart rhythm, blood clotting, and muscle function. The body relies on bone calcium to keep blood calcium concentrations up to par.

Getting enough calcium bolsters your child’s bones by balancing the withdrawals with deposits from the diet.

A child’s daily calcium needs vary with age, says the Institute of Medicine, the group of experts that set nutrient quotas.

  • 1- through 3-year-olds need 500 milligrams
  • 4- through 8-year-olds need 800 milligrams
  • 9- to 19-year-olds need 1,300 milligrams

(For reference, 8 ounces of milk serves up 300 milligrams of calcium.)

Many American children, especially teens, are way off the mark when it comes to calcium intake.

“Soft drinks, such as soda and fruit beverages, have infiltrated kids’ diets, causing milk to take a back seat,” says Jodie Shield, MEd, RD, co-author of the American Dietetic Association’s Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids, and mother of three.

What’s worse, calcium needs increase dramatically at a time in life when kids, especially girls, get far less than the suggested amount. One study found adolescent girls averaged 814 milligrams a day vs. the recommended 1,300.

Experts say that calcium gap is significant. Females run a greater risk for osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease that shows up as bone fractures, sometimes decades down the road.

“Just before the teen years, and all throughout adolescence, children must get enough calcium to provide the foundation for strong bones,” says Shield. “During this time, the body lays down nearly half of all the bone mass it will ever have.”

Increasing Calcium: Shield suggests offering children low-fat or flavored milks instead of other beverages that offer little more than calories. Including dairy at every meal also insures that children meet their calcium goals.

Eight ounces of any type of milk (including lactose-free); 8 ounces of yogurt; and 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, such as cheddar, each contain about the same amount of calcium. As a bonus, milk and certain yogurts are fortified with vitamin D, necessary for calcium to do its job.

Orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D is another calcium-rich, but dairy-free, option; added vitamin D makes it all the better. Children who don’t consume enough dairy or fortified choices may need a calcium supplement.

Fiber: An Essential Nutrient for Satiety

On-the-go lifestyles are one of the reasons why kids are eating less fiber than they should. A lack of fiber-filled whole grains and fresh and lightly processed fruits and vegetables — foods typically eaten at home — is largely to blame.

“I’m a dietitian and getting my own kids to eat enough fiber is challenging,” says Shield.

Fiber is necessary for curbing constipation by adding bulk to bowel movements, stimulating the gut to pass waste with greater ease. Fiber also helps kids feel fuller, a handy weapon in the battle of the bulge.

When consumed as part of a balanced diet, fiber helps head off type 2 diabetes and high blood cholesterol concentrations in adults, and may work for kids, too. Diets rich in fiber-filled foods may reduce the risk of heart disease later in life.

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that keeps good company. Generally speaking, high-fiber foods are packed with vitamins and minerals to fuel growth and development. They also contain beneficial plant compounds called phytonutrients that boost a child’s immunity.

How much fiber is enough? That depends on your child’s age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Figure your child’s daily fiber quota in grams by adding five to his age. For example, a 5-year-old should get 10 grams of daily dietary fiber.

Increasing Fiber: Boost your family’s fiber intake by serving a fruit or vegetable (or both) with meals and snacks. Opt for whole-grain breads and cereals, pasta, and other grains.

Also, try to include legumes, including chickpeas, lentils, and white beans in salads, soups and omelets. Coincidentally, many of these same foods provide potassium and magnesium, too.

Magnesium: An Essential Nutrient for Growth

Magnesium is involved in about 300 bodily functions responsible for keeping your child going and growing. This amazing mineral helps maintain normal muscle, nerve, and heart function; contributes to a robust immune system; fosters energy production; and bolsters bone health.

In fact, about half of the body’s magnesium is housed in your child’s bones; the remaining half is found inside his cells and in his blood stream.

Here’s how much magnesium your child needs each day:

  • 1- through 3-year-olds: 80 milligrams
  • 4- through 8-year-olds: 130 milligrams
  • 9- through 13-year-olds: 240 milligrams
  • 14- through 18-year-old males: 410 milligrams
  • 14- through 18-year-old females: 360 milligrams

Increasing Magnesium: Food labels don’t typically feature magnesium content. No matter. Offering your kids dark green vegetables; a variety of nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds; whole grains; and white, black, and navy beans as part of a balanced diet will help them meet their magnesium needs.

Another example: 24 ounces of low-fat milk, 4 slices whole-wheat bread, 1 cup whole-grain cereal, and 2 ounces of almonds satisfies the daily magnesium quota for a 15 -year-old male.

Vitamin E: An Essential Nutrient Superhero

Vitamin E is a cellular superhero of sorts. As a powerful antioxidant nutrient, vitamin E battles free radicals, the by-products of normal metabolism, and exposure to ultraviolet rays, air pollution, and cigarette smoke. Vitamin E is also vital for a strong immune system.

Vitamin E is found in abundance in fatty foods, which you may curb out of concern for your child’s weight, but fear of fat can hinder healthy eating in kids.

“Offering your child too many low-fat foods may limit his vitamin E intake,” says Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, author of Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids, and mother of two.

So can restricting nuts. The prevalence of nut allergies may have you holding off from offering them until later in childhood.

“At that point, children may not accept nuts and nut products as readily,” says Swinney.

According to the AAP, only high-risk children need to be concerned about food allergy. When mom and dad have allergies or one parent and a child’s sibling has allergies, you should be extra cautious. Speak with your pediatrician about allergy risk if you fall into one of these categories.

There are actually eight forms of vitamin E in food, with the alpha-tocopherol (ATE) form being the most useful to the body, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Increasing Vitamin E: Vegetable oils, wheat germ, fortified foods, and dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, are rich in ATE. Just one ounce of almonds satisfies the daily ATE needs of 4- to 8-year-olds. Sunflower seeds are packed with ATE vitamin E, too: one-quarter cups provides 9- to 13-year-olds all they need for the day.

There are other ways to get vitamin E besides eating nut and nut butters and sunflower seeds. Fortified cereals are a great way to work in the vitamin E your child needs. Using sunflower and safflower oils for cooking and salad dressings provides more vitamin E than corn and canola oils.

Potassium: A Heart-Helping Essential Nutrient

Potassium insures normal heart and muscle function; maintains fluid balance; participates in energy production; and promotes strong bones.

A potassium-rich diet helps head off high blood pressurein adults. Getting children in the habit of including high-potassium foods may help them keep blood pressure in check as they age, too.

Potassium is in every food, so why don’t children get enough? Blame it on too many processed choices.

“Kids, just like adults, don’t eat enough of the fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are richest in potassium,” Swinney says.

Increasing Potassium: Dairy foods and fresh (cooked) meats and seafood are also good potassium sources. Generally speaking, the more processed the food, the less potassium it provides, and the more sodium in a food, the lower the potassium.

For example, 8 ounces of orange juice supplies nearly four times the potassium of an orange-flavored beverage. A cup of low-fat flavored yogurt at 434 milligrams of potassium is a far wiser choice than a couple of chocolate chip cookies with merely 30 milligrams potassium.

Here’s how much potassium kids need on a daily basis:

  • 1- to 3 years: 3,000 milligrams
  • 4- to 8 years: 3,800 milligrams
  • 9- to 13 years: 4,500 milligrams
  • 14- to 18 years: 4,700 milligrams

Serve at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack and encourage your child to eat a balanced diet with fresh meat and seafood and dairy foods to maximize his potassium intake.

If you’re concerned your kids aren’t getting the nutrients they need, have a talk with their pediatrician. And remember, a diet low in processed food and rich in produce, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy can help them — and you — get the essential nutrients they need.

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