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How your nutritional needs change through your life

To remain healthy, what we eat as well as how much is important. But is this the same for everyone? Each phase of our lives comes with specific needs. A newborn needs to double in size in a short period of time, for instance. Whereas, this is obviously not a healthy development once you’re an adult. Let’s take a closer look at the different stages beginning from the moment of conception. Pregnant women go through lots of physical and hormonal change. Eating a healthy, balanced and varied diet is important for both the mother’s nutritional status and the foetus’s optimal development. The mother’s body has increased nutritional needs during pregnancy, and some vitamins and minerals are particularly important during pregnancy.
For example, folic acid and vitamin D supplements are recommended to lower the risk of neural tube defects in the foetus and ensure the foetus has optimal development of bone mass and bone health. Excessive weight gain should be avoided to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure disorders, and the need for a caesarean delivery. As such, regular moderate intensity physical activity during pregnancy is recommended to help pregnant women maintain a healthy weight. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months and then continuing breastfeeding whilst introducing complementary foods. Although breast milk is an excellent source in nutrition, it’s an inadequate supplier of vitamin D and thus needs to be supplemented for breastfed babies.
From around six months of age, babies start weaning into foods and drinks in addition to breast and formula milk. A wider range of fruit, vegetables, and non wheat cereals are suitable as their first weaning foods, followed by the gradual introduction of other types of foods such as dairy, wheat, and protein. Some foods need to be avoided during the weaning process, such as salt, sugar, honey, raw eggs, whole nuts, and some types of fish with high mercury levels. In proportion to their body size, children require a higher energy intake compared to adults to compensate for growth and they may be more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies due to having less stores.
By the time they start school, children should be eating a varied diet. As they start to become more independent, it is important that they are encouraged to pursue healthy dietary choices. Limiting the number of times that children consume sugary foods and drinks and regular physical activity is particularly important to prevent childhood obesity. Childhood and adolescence are the period in which bone mineral density increases until peak bone mass is reached in the mid 20s. Adolescents should be encouraged to consume three meals a day, including breakfast, which is often skipped in this age group.
Focus should particularly be placed on ensuring iron and calcium rich foods are included in the diet and that snacks focus on increasing fruit and vegetable intake rather than calorie dense foods. Eating behaviours should be monitored in this age group as fad diets and eating disorders are also common issues. The dietary requirements for adults between 19 and 50 years vary between men and women. As a rule of thumb, men should have a daily energy intake of 2,500 kilocalories and women 2,000 kilocalories. Roughly half of the dietary intake should come from carbohydrates, a third from fats, and the rest from proteins.
This can be achieved by a daily intake of 250 grammes of vegetables, two pieces of fruit, around 300 grammes of whole grain products and starchy vegetables like potatoes, 250 grammes of dairy intake, 50 grammes of oils and fats, 100 grammes of animal proteins like eggs, meat or fish, and 100 grammes of legumes and nuts. On the other hand, the intake has sugar, salt, and saturated fats should be limited to minimise the risk of developing chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Lastly, adults should also be active on a daily basis and achieve at least 2 and 1/2 hours of physical activity per week to both remain fit and maintain a healthy body weight.
When people are more active, energy requirements of course also increase. These general dietary requirements also apply to older people, though energy requirements fall with increasing age due to a generally lower energy expenditure. Malnutrition can also be prevalent as sense of taste and smell can alter as we age. This may affect appetite and ultimately lead to a lower dietary intake and micronutrient deficiencies. A healthy diet and regular physical exercise could play a protective role in a number of age related conditions, including bone health and cognitive decline.
Altogether, each phase of our lives ask for specific needs on top of the general recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern that supports growth when needed and maintains a healthy body weight once we reach adulthood. In the next articles, you will learn exactly how healthy eating is able to prevent disease.

In this video, you will explore the nutrition recommendations at all stages of life starting from young age to late adulthood.

We’d like you to reflect on what you have seen and share with us your thoughts on the evolution of our nutriton needs through our life.

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Nutrition for Health and Sustainability

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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