Dietary Focus for Youth
Improving the diets of children and adolescents requires greater attention to making nutritious choices at home, at school, and in community settings. Promoting good nutrition early in life and providing positive role models for healthy eating are two important ways of improving the eating patterns of youngsters. The purpose of making healthy dietary choices is not just to avoid chronic disease (although the benefits related to heart disease and other chronic conditions are clear), but also to meet nutrient requirements that lead to the best possible level of function and the ability to engage in physical activity. Food is the fuel for physical activity, and selecting high-grade fuels provides the nutrients needed to power routine daily activities, moderate and vigorous physical activity, and sports performance.
Normal growth requires good nutrition.
As with adults, children’s weight in relation to height can be assessed easily via the body mass index (BMI). However, use of BMI is a bit more complex for youth because weight and height change with age and the relationship between body fatness and weight and height also varies with age.
Consequently, BMI charts that are specific for age and sex must be used for youth between the ages of 2 and 20 or go to www.cdc.gov/growthcharts/ and enter “BMI calculator” into the search window for an easy online calculator and individualized interpretation of BMI).
Based on guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a BMI value between the 5th percentile and less than the 85th percentile is considered to fall within the healthy weight category. The BMI range for being classified as overweight is between the 85th and less than the 95th percentile, and a classification of obesity is indicated if BMI is equal or greater than the 95th percentile. A BMI that is less than the 5th percentile indicates underweight. As BMI does not take into account body composition (i.e., the relative contribution of fat and lean tissue to overall body weight), it is appropriate to schedule a visit with a healthcare provider for further evaluation and consultation for a child who is classified as overweight, obese, or underweight using the BMI calculation.
Consuming an appropriate number of calories and foods from various categories results in optimal nutrition
Recommendations for grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk and dairy items are for boys and girls.
Based on the information we have here are examples of meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner:
- Breakfast: One banana, a slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter, and low-fat milk
- Lunch: Turkey sandwich with cheese, dark leafy lettuce, tomato, and red peppers on whole wheat bread, 6-ounce yogurt snack pack, bottle of water
- Dinner: One whole wheat tortilla with chicken, low-fat cheese, chopped tomato, and romaine lettuce
As you can see, many combinations of foods in the four major food groups can be put together in creative ways to make healthy, tasty meals for youth of all ages.
Importance of Family Meals
While it can sometimes be challenging for family members to eat together, doing so provides a daily opportunity not only to enjoy a communal meal but also to talk about what’s going on in each person’s life and strengthen family bonds. From a nutrition point of view, eating meals as a family unit has been linked to increased fruit and vegetable consumption, higher intakes of nutrients such as dietary fiber, calcium, vitamins B6, B12, C, and iron, and less intake of fried foods and soda. Moreover, a greater frequency of eating dinner as a family is associated with a positive sense of the future, positive values and identity, higher levels of motivation and involvement in school, and a greater commitment to learning. In addition, research has shown that younger children (younger than 13 years old) who eat breakfast on a regular basis demonstrate greater on-task behavior in the classroom and higher school grades and achievement test scores.
What are ways a family can develop healthy eating patterns?
The following tips can help a family eat well:
- Make half your grains whole. Select whole-grain foods more often (e.g., whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, low-fat popcorn).
- Vary your veggies. Eat a variety of vegetables, and in particular, seek out dark green and orange vegetables (e.g., spinach, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes).
- Focus on fruits. Fruits can be part of meals or snacks, whether they are fresh, frozen, canned, or dried.
- Eat calcium-rich foods. Low-fat and fat-free milk and other milk products should be consumed several times a day to help build strong bones.
- Go lean with protein. Protein can be found in lean or low-fat meats, chicken, turkey, and fish, as well as dry beans and peas.
- Change your oil. Good sources of oil are fish, nuts, and liquid oils (e.g., corn, soybean, canola, and olive oil).
- Don’t sugarcoat it. Check labels and choose foods and beverages that do not have sugar and sweeteners as one of their primary ingredients.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, My Plate for kids is an excellent nutrition resource. The website www.choosemyplate.gov/kids includes resources for younger age groups, including games, activity sheets, and recipes.
Children begin to establish dietary habits and preferences during the first years of life. Working together, parents and caregivers can guide, educate, and motivate youngsters to make wise nutrition choices. Developing healthy eating habits during childhood and adolescence is a foundational life skill that can help prevent the genesis of diet-related diseases later in life.