Most kids and teenagers eat too much sugar, saturated fat and salt – no surprises there. A lesser-known problem is that many don’t get enough of certain nutrients needed to support their unique development needs, dietitians say.
From ages 2 to 11, that list includes calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber, while iron and zinc are additional concerns for teens, says Jennifer McDaniel, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in St. Louis, Missouri, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Among their many health benefits, these nutrients fuel rapid growth that continues longer than many parents realize. “Forty percent or more of bone mass is formed during adolescence,” McDaniel notes. “Even though it appears that a teenager has reached peak height, their bones continue to strengthen.”
Some nutrient needs fluctuate based on age and gender, adds Dr. David Holzsager, a Hampton-based pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Teenage girls are at higher risk for iron deficiencies once they begin losing blood through menstruation, for example, while breastfed babies may not get enough vitamin D without supplementation.
Here’s what parents should know:
VITAMIN D is important for normal cell growth, immune system function and bone health (the vitamin aids with calcium and phosphorus absorption). Sources include sunlight, milk, fortified cereals and orange juices, salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms, especially those exposed
to ultraviolet light.
CALCIUM is important for bone growth and strength, normal muscle contraction and healthy blood pressure. Sources include dairy products – milk, cheese and yogurt – salmon, spinach, turnip greens, okra, pinto beans, oranges, tempeh, tofu
and fortified cereals.
FIBER is important for healthy weight and digestion, preventing constipation and lowering long-term risk of heart disease, diabetes and possibly certain cancers. Sources include fruits, colorful vegetables, beans, whole-grains, nuts and seeds. “Popcorn is also a fun and easy way to add fiber,” Holzsager notes. “The fiber comes from the white fluffy part of the corn, so it must be popped to be effective.”
POTASSIUM is important for normal blood pressure, heart function and fluid balance in the body. Sources include most fruits and vegetables – bananas, cantaloupe, oranges, apricots, potatoes, avocados and spinach, in particular – milk, kidney beans, dates and almonds.
IRON is important for the growth of red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body, which boosts energy and immune system function; deficiencies have been linked to learning difficulties. Sources include red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, enriched grains and leafy green vegetables. Pair those foods with vitamin C-rich sources to boost absorption, McDaniel adds: “An example might be adding strawberries to iron-fortified breakfast cereal.” Holzsager recommends testing iron levels at ages 1, 2 and at the start of menstruation, and discussing multi-vitamins or supplements with a doctor.
ZINC is important for normal growth and sexual development, as well as immune function. Sources include meat, milk, cheese, eggs, shellfish, seeds, nuts, wheat germ and beans.
Protein is also an important element for muscle growth, but Americans of all ages generally get more than enough, dietitians say. Finally, smart eating – including at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and cutting back on sugary drinks and treats – can take care of many nutritional shortfalls.
“The bottom line,” Holzsager says, “is that good nutrition is healthy.”