Why Is Nutrition Important for Toddlers?
Fostering good eating habits and providing healthy, nutrient-dense food choices is one of a parent's important tasks in raising young children. Quality nutrition is important for toddlers, because it affects physical and mental development as well as helping to prevent and overcome illness. Deficiencies of nutrients, such as iron and vitamin C, can impair brain and body functioning. Also, what constitutes healthy eating for older children and adults isn't always best for little ones.
Being constantly active helps toddlers develop muscles, bones and coordination, but presents difficulties for consuming the 1,000 to 1,400 calories they need daily to grow about 3 to 5 inches a year. Also, as the Ask Dr. Sears website notes, a toddler's stomach usually is only as large as his fist, so it fills quickly. One good idea is to allow young children to graze throughout the day from tiny trays containing various healthy nibbles, including grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, ground meats and nutrient-dense, high-calorie choices such as avocado slices and string cheese. Toddlers shouldn't be allowed to fill up on calorie-dense beverages, including fruit juice. Eating snack foods is also a bad idea, because they eliminate hunger yet deprive toddlers of necessary nutrients.
Malnutrition during pregnancy affects a child's cognitive development. Nutritional deficiencies can particularly affect brain growth during the first few years of life. For example, iron deficiency leads to learning difficulties as well as growth and behavior problems. Toddlers need about 7 milligrams of iron daily. A shortage can cause anemia, which results in insufficient oxygen reaching all parts of the body. Toddler diets can be deficient in the mineral if they drink too much cow's milk, which is low in iron and so filling that it may leave little appetite for other iron-rich foods, such as the complex carbohydrates of beans. Insufficient consumption of vitamin C foods can impair iron absorption. Complex carbohydrates are good for mental functioning, according to the What to Expect website, because they give the brain a "steady supply of fuel." Egg yolks, broccoli and tofu are among the foods the website recommends to provide choline, a nutrient that aids memory and helps the brain communicate with the body.
A healthy diet containing plenty of foods rich in vitamins, minerals and beta-carotene -- the antioxidant and pigment in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables -- helps build immunity at all ages. A well-nourished body is more capable of fighting off colds, flu and other illnesses. During illness, children should be encouraged but not forced to eat favorite healthy foods, such as bananas, applesauce and plain toast plus lots of fluids. This is a good time for a vitamin boost from pure fruit juice.
Chronic Disease Prevention
For lifelong disease prevention, adults need to help young children develop a pattern of making healthy dietary choices in order to avoid obesity, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to as a problem leading to chronic illness. Obesity is connected to health problems, such as cancer, heart disease and osteoarthritis.
Although many doctors now say that 2 percent low-fat milk is okay for toddlers, especially if they are overweight or have family histories of cholesterol and heart trouble, many pediatricians stress whole cow's milk for children from ages 1 to 2. This is partly because whole milk is calorie- and nutrient-dense. However, the national nonprofit organization Zero to Three notes that toddlers also need certain fats for myelination — the process of protectively coating the neurons that connect brain and body. Whole cow's milk, which can be introduced after a child's first birthday, is a good source of myelin. If lower-fat milk is used, toddlers need to receive other sources of high-fat foods aiding myelination, such as olive oil.
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