The Right Food for the Right Time


Good health is essential for sustainability; in order to maintain good health and increase life expectancy, we have to start with the essential dietary plan. It is important to take into account the extra demands of your body according to your age. Babies, children, teenagers, adults, older adults, pregnant and breastfeeding women all have different nutritional needs. It is necessary that all people of different ages know how to eat and what are the essential nutrients to be consumed according to their life stage.

What we eat during infancy affects our long-term health, immune system, metabolic programming, and overall aging. The first year of life is the peak time for growth and changes throughout the body. In order to sustain the baby’s body size and rate of growth during the first twelve months of life, the baby’s energy, vitamins, and minerals requirements can be three times greater than the requirements of a typical adult.

Calories are the measurement used to express the energy delivered by food. Most adults require 20-30 calories per kg, while infants who weigh 6 kg require almost 82 calories per kg. During the early years, energy needs remain high; children aged 1-3 years old require 83 calories per kg. Afterwards, energy requirements decrease and are based on weight, height, and physical activity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF all recommend that infants breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of their life. Even after introducing solid foods, breastfeeding should continue for the first year at least. Breast milk contains all the necessary nutrients in the proper portions that will help keep the baby healthy and aids the baby’s growth.

Ages 4-6 months old, you cannot introduce solid foods as infants are not ready for digestion in this age. For additional details about when is the best time to start feeding the baby, you can read my article When to Feed Your Baby Solid Foods?. Once babies start eating, you have to be careful about what you are going to feed them until they are one year old. There are foods that should be avoided because they can pose a threat on their health. You can find more about these foods in my article To Feed or Not to Feed!.

Children food needs depend on their growth to match their growth patterns and their level of physical activity. Appropriate weight gain and development is not the only indication whether the food intake is appropriate or not. They should have a huge storage of nutrients enough for their rapid growth spurt experienced during adolescence. It is important that parents prepare balanced meals that contain all the essential nutrients for their growth and development during their life.

The meal should contain proteins, which help a child’s body build cells, break down food into energy, fight infection, and carry oxygen. Carbohydrates are the body’s most important source of energy; they help the body use fat and protein to build and repair tissue. They are in many forms, including sugars, starches, and fiber; however, kids should be eating less sugar. Fats are also a good source of energy for kids and are easily stored in a child’s body; they are important in helping the body use the other nutrients needed by the body. The meal should contain calcium, which is essential for the growth of healthy bones and teeth; it is also necessary for blood clotting and for nerve, muscle, and heart functions.

It is important that the meal contains foods with high levels of Vitamins A and C. Vitamin A is essential for children and adults as it helps growth, assists the eyes in adjusting to dim and bright lights, keeps skin healthy, and prevents infection. Vitamin C, on the other hand, holds the body’s cells together, strengthens the walls of blood vessels and helps the body heal wounds. We must not forget water; infants and children need more water intake than adults, because children have larger body surface area per unit of body weight and a reduced capacity for sweating when compared to adults, which makes them at higher risk of suffering from dehydration.

The need for protein, vitamins, and minerals increases with age. Due to the accelerated growth period a teenager goes through, the body demands more calories, so it is necessary to increase the intake of certain nutrients. Boys require an average of 2800 calories per day, while girls require an average of 2200 calories per day. In this period, nutritionists recommend complex carbohydrates on simple carbohydrates; complex carbs provide sustained energy and should make up 50% to 60% of a teenager’s caloric intake.

It is recommended that teenagers have fat in their meal, but not more that 30% of their meal. Fat supplies energy and assists the body in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as, A, D, E, and K. However, too much fat could have negative effects on health; it can lead to increased weight, even with physical activity. Fatty foods also contain cholesterol, which can clog an artery and cause heart diseases. There are three types of fats; monounsaturated fats are the healthiest and found in olives, olive oil, peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, and cashews. The second type is polyunsaturated fats found in corn oil, sunflower oil, and sesame seed oil. Saturated fats are the third type and are the most cholesterol laden; they are found in meat, dairy products, coconut, and palm oils.

The dietary requirements of adults, 19–50 years of age, differ according to gender depending on body mass and according to activity levels. Males usually require more of vitamins C, K, B1, B2, B3, choline, magnesium, zinc, chromium, and manganese, while females require more iron. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are the most nutritionally demanding periods of an adult woman’s life. As the nourishment of the baby is from the mother, it is important that she gets all the nutrients needed to maintain the baby’s growth. It is important for pregnant women to consume high-folate foods, such as green leafy vegetables, fruits, and legumes, because folic acid is essential to reduce the risk of a baby born with spinal cord birth defects.

Pregnant women need almost 27 milligrams of iron per day to prevent iron-deficiency-related anemia; even after delivery, breastfeeding mothers will require about 10 milligrams per day. For strong bones and a healthy heart, muscle system, and nervous system, it is necessary for pregnant women to consume foods with calcium. If the mother does not meet the needed calcium requirements, the baby will absorb its calcium needs from the mother’s bones. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need around 1000 milligrams of calcium per day. During this period, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers might need an additional 300-500 calories per day to provide the extra energy the body needs.

Growing old does not mean that you will not eat right or stay fit. Older adults face a variety of changes in their body, including lean body mass, muscle loss, thinner skin, less stomach acid, metabolic rate, and less physical activity, which affect their nutritional requirements. As you age, your energy requirements decrease than when you were younger, as you tend to move and exercise. So, if you continue to eat the same amount of calories as you did when you were younger, you could easily gain extra fat. Elderly people should aim to be active, at least to have a 30-minute walk daily, in order to strengthen their muscles and maintain their health.

Eating more fiber-rich foods at this age can help lower the risk of heart disease and prevent Type 2 diabetes. Whole-grain breads, cereals, beans, peas, fruits, and vegetables provide fiber. Elderly people should increase their potassium intake through eating fruits, vegetables, and beans along with lowering sodium, cooking food with little or no salt, can lower the risk of high blood pressure.

To conclude, regardless of age, a balanced diet that includes all the essential nutrients for the body’s age is recommended for everyone. The concern is inadequate intake of certain nutrients, whether the excess or lack of nutrients, which lead to detrimental health problems.


*Published in SCIplanet, Summer 2019 issue.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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