As our bodies grow, develop, strengthen, then age gracefully, our nutritional needs vary. But healthy food choices remain vital for good health throughout our entire lifetime. All that's needed is some fine-tuning at different stages of life.
Babies and toddlers
Breastmilk is best for babies. It provides the optimal balance of nutrients for growth and development, along with antibodies to build immunity. Infant formula is available if parents are unable to breastfeed or choose not to.
Puréed fruit, vegetables and gluten-free cereals make ideal first foods; variety and texture can be increased gradually. Make sure that iron-rich foods such as meat, fortified cereals or pulses are included from six months of age.
|The importance of calcium
|Calcium and vitamin D are vital for growing bones and teeth. If milk isn't popular with your child, offer calcium-rich alternatives such as cheese or yoghurt.
By the age of one, balanced family-type meals plus suitable snacks will keep a child's energy and nutrient levels topped up. Full-fat cow's milk can now be given as a main milk drink. For teeth's sake, any sugary foods and drinks are best kept to mealtimes.
Children's vitamin drops are advisable unless you're confident your toddler has a varied diet and regularly goes outdoors - the skin makes vitamin D when exposed to some gentle sunlight. Seek medical and dietetic advice if you feel your child may have a food intolerance.
Children need good food to fuel growth, development and active play. Growth spurts and the onset of puberty increase nutritional needs further.
While dietary surveys show that children get enough to eat, their dietary balance could be better. In general, children eat too many sweets, salty snacks and sugary drinks and too few vegetables, fruit, lean meat and dairy foods. They're also less active than in previous generations.
A child's early experience of food helps shape their eating habits in later life. By being good role models, parents can encourage children to enjoy and experience a wide variety of tasty and nourishing foods. Relaxed family meals, away from the television and other distractions, help develop the social side of food too.
As we enter adulthood, our nutritional needs stabilise, but it's vitally important that we eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Although the body has stopped growing and developing, nutritional needs remain high. Women need to take special care with iron because menstruation makes their needs higher.
The health-protective effects of a fruit- and vegetable-rich, balanced diet also take on a renewed importance. A varied diet, together with an active, non-smoking lifestyle, keeps energy levels, alertness and immunity high, and reduces the risk of disease and obesity.
The longer we live, the more our bodies are exposed to the effects of raised cholesterol, pollution, gradual bone loss that comes with age, a plentiful supply of high-fat food and not enough physical activity.
Simple ways to boost your nutrient intake include:
- Start the day by eating fortified cereal with milk and fruit or juice.
- Include two to three servings of dairy foods daily - but not low-fat types for the under-fives.
- Vary the colour of your fruit and vegetables - fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juiced types all count.
- Have two moderate servings of lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, pulses or nuts each day.
- Choose wholegrain breads and cereals whenever possible.
As we get much older, our calorie needs decline due to a drop in muscle strength from less physical activity. Our vitamin and mineral needs, however, say the same and may even increase if the body starts absorbing them less sufficiently.
Staying as active as possible benefits both body and mind, and allows a good food intake without unhealthy weight gain. This also helps to maintain a strong immune system, which reduces risk of illness and speeds recovery. A daily multivitamin and mineral supplement can be helpful, too.
Problems can occur if interest in food declines because of poor appetite, a limited budget, loneliness, illness or medication. A weekly weight check will uncover any unhealthy weight loss - advice from a dietician may be needed.
Our changing calorie needs
|Calories required: Male
|Calories required: Female
Note these are average values only. Very active people, for example, will need more calories.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks in October 2005.
First published in May 2001.