Kids today are likely ingesting fewer nutrients and more added substances in their early-life nutrition diets
Though good nutrition is important at any age, one could argue that early-life nutrition is even more critical for kids and adolescents. New data is arguing for the virtues of supplementation when it comes to children and teens’ diets meeting their nutritional needs.
Consuming the necessary vitamins and minerals early in life supports proper growth and development, with vitamin D and iron being two nutrients of special importance according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, establishing good nutrition habits early on makes it easier to retain those same healthful habits as you age.
While it may come as no surprise that youth might not always make the best early-life nutrition health choices — you already know this if you’ve ever tried to get a child to eat broccoli versus pizza, for instance — one new piece of research suggests that the diets of U.S. children and teen may be poorer than we thought. And they appear to be getting worse.
U.S. early-life nutrition food trends
On August 10, 2021, JAMA published an article written by researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In this piece, the authors indicate that a 20-year study found that, in 2018, approximately 67% of a U.S. youth’s diet consisted of ultra-processed foods. That’s an increase from 61.4% in 1999.
Research published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition in February 2019 explains that the definition of ultra-processed foods has changed in recent years. At first, a food was included in this category if it had added salt, preservatives, and additives. Now, an ultra-processed food is any food that also includes “food substances not commonly used in culinary preparations” to either satisfy the same senses as minimally processed foods or to make the item more appealing.
Food items that are typically considered to be ultra-processed by today’s standards include mass-produced breads and cereals, cookies and other pastries, ice cream, carbonated drinks, pre-prepared meat, and instant soup. Even some infant formulas are classified as ultra-processed due to the ingredients they contain.
At the same time as ultra-processed food consumption is increasing, the consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed food is decreasing in our nation’s youth, dropping from 28.8% to 23.5% in this same time frame. This suggests that kids today are likely ingesting fewer nutrients and more added substances in their early-life nutrition diets, which could not only impact their health today but also when they get older.
The connection between early-life health and later-life health
Research has consistently made a connection between early life nutrition and health status in later life stages. For example, one 2014 study notes that pre- and post-natal nutrition can alter gene expression which also alters disease susceptibility, especially when it comes to impairing glucose metabolism. A piece of 2016 research adds that intestinal microbiota is developed in the first few years of life and calls diet a “principal contributor” to microbial composition. If this composition is off, disease can set in.
Other studies have connected early life nutrition with reproductive function, particularly when undernutrition and/or obesity exist. So, not only are the current trends impacting the health of children and teens today, but they may also be limiting their ability to have their own kids once they are ready to start a family.
Current dietary recommendations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services jointly created 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and adolescents consume enough nutrient-dense foods to supply their bodies with the required amounts of vitamins and minerals.
For children between the ages of 2-8, this amounts to somewhere between 1,000-2,000 calories per day. These calories should be split as follows:
- 1 – 2.5 cups of vegetables
- 1 – 2 cups of fruit
- 3 – 6 ounces of grains (split evenly between whole grains and refined grains)
- 2 – 2.5 cups of dairy
- 2 – 5.5 ounces of protein
- 15 – 24 grams of oil
For adolescents aged 9-13, the recommendation is to consume between 1,400-2,600 calories daily, split as follows:
- 5 – 2.5 cups of vegetables
- 5 – 2 cups of fruit
- 5 – 9 ounces of grains (split evenly between whole grains and refined grains)
- 3 cups of dairy
- 4 – 6.5 ounces of protein
- 17 – 34 grams of oil
Teens aged 14-18 should consume 1,800-3,200 calories per day, with the following additional suggestions:
- 2 – 4 cups of vegetables
- 5 – 2.5 cups of fruit
- 6 – 10 ounces of grains (split evenly between whole grains and refined grains)
- 3 cups of dairy
- 5 – 7 ounces of protein
- 24 – 51 grams of oil
If these recommendations are followed, there are limited remaining calories left for what the guidelines term as “other uses,” or foods that are likely to fall in the ultra-processed category.
Changing children’s dietary habits
Just as many adults struggle with creating healthy food habits, children can experience the same troubles. Ways to help reduce this struggle in children and teens include not keeping a lot of processed food in the home, modeling a healthy eating pattern as a parent or guardian, and making healthy food convenient so kids can just grab it and go.
It can also be helpful to include youth in the buying, preparing, and cooking of healthy food, and consider a daily vitamin or other supplementation. The more active their role in creating and following a healthy diet, the more likely it is they will develop the behaviors and patterns consistent with this approach.