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What Important Nutrition Do We Need During Early Childhood?

The first 12 months of a child’s life are very important as this is when you start building the foundations for good health. It is paramount that parents understand how to provide the proper nutrition and the correct exercise for children during their first year.

What Important Nutrition Do We Need During Early Childhood?

The food pyramid

A food pyramid is an excellent way of recognising easily how much food, on average, we should be eating from each of the food groups in order to maintain a healthy balanced diet. The pyramid clearly shows that most of the food we eat should come from the breads and cereals group with the least foods falling into the fats and sugar category.

Daily portions from each category of the food pyramid

Depending on age, we should be targeting to eat the following number of portions per day from each of the above categories:

 Bread, cereals and potatoes – 6 to 11 portions

 Fruit and vegetables – 5 portions

 Milk and dairy – 2 to 3 portions

 Meat, fish and pulses – 2 portions

 Fats and sweets – occasionally.

Key nutrients

There are five different types of nutrients and these are:

  •  Vitamins
  •  Protein
  •  Carbohydrates  minerals
  •  Fats.

Each of these five nutrients can be split into two groups:

Macronutrients – these are the nutrients which we eat in large amounts (the word ‘macro’ means large).

Micronutrients – these are the nutrients which we eat in small amounts (the word ‘micro’ means small).

The three nutrients which fall into the group of macronutrients are:

  •  Protein
  •  Carbohydrates 
  • Fats.

We need to eat relatively large quantities of these three nutrients every day in order to provide our bodies with the energy they need.

The remaining two nutrients are in the micronutrient group: 

  • Vitamins
  •  Minerals.

Each contains many different types of nutrient such as vitamins A, B, and C, iron, sodium and calcium. Although our organs require all of these nutrients in order to remain healthy we only need to consume small amounts of each.



Carbohydrates can be split into two different forms:

 1–Simple carbohydrates

 2–Complex carbohydrates.

 Simple carbohydrates

These take very little time to be transformed into energy and can be found mainly in the following foods:

  •  Sugar
  •  Fruit
  •  Fizzy drinks
  •  Biscuits
  •  Cakes and chocolate
  •  Jam and Honey.
Complex Carbohydrates

These take longer to be transformed into energy and can be found in the following foods:

  •  Pasta
  •  Bread
  •  Potatoes
  •  Rice
  •  Breakfast cereals

The main role of carbohydrates is to supply the body with energy. We need energy to take part in any form of physical activity, and the more physical activity we take part in the more carbohydrates we will need to consume. A lack of carbohydrates would leave us feeling tired and lethargic. The brain needs a consistent supply of carbohydrates in order to function adequately and a diet which does not contain sufficient carbohydrates could lead to a lack of concentration and energy.


Protein is important in our diet in order for the body to grow and repair itself. Many parts of our body are made up of protein including muscles, skin, hair, nails and internal organs. Protein can be found in many of the foods we eat which are derived both from animals or animal products such as:

  •  Meat
  •  Fish
  •  Poultry
  •  Eggs
  •  Milk and Milk products
  •  Nuts
  •  Beans.

A deficiency of protein in the body may lead to hair loss, muscle weakening or wasting and delayed healing of wounds.


Fat provides the body with energy; it has twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates and protein although the energy produced from fat is supplied at a very slow rate. Fat is thus used for activities which are less energetic such as walking and sitting. Fat also supplies the body with insulation which ensures that the body remains at a certain temperature and does not get too cold. Another important role of the fat in the body is to protect our internal organs by acting as a shock absorber should we fall or hit ourselves hard. A deficiency of fat in the diet may lead to dry and flaky skin.

Fat can be found in food  such as:

  •  Meat 
  • Cheese
  •   Cream and Milk
  •  Butter and Margarine
  •  Lard
  •  Chocolate
  •  Cooking Oil
  •  Oily Fish such as Sardines
  •  Nuts and Seeds.

A lack of fat in the diet is very rare in the western world – most people are actually eating too much fat in their diet which leads to other health problems such as obesity and heart disease.



Vitamins can be divided into two main groups:

 1–Fat soluble, which can be stocked in the body until needed

 2–Water soluble, which cannot be stored and which are excreted if we consume more than we need.

Our bodies are not able to make vitamins and it is therefore important that we eat a diet which will provide us with the right amount of vitamins. Most of the food we consume contains some form of vitamin, however in order to ensure that we receive sufficient quantities of each it is essential that we eat a varied, balanced diet.

Essential vitamins

Essential vitamins needed by the body are A, B, C, D and E.

Vitamin A

This ensures that we maintain good vision, skin and hair. A deficiency of vitamin A in the diet could lead to night-blindness. The following foods are rich in vitamin A:

  •  Dark green vegetables
  •  Liver
  •  Carrots
  •  Beef
  •  Mackerel

Vitamin A comes in two forms:

1. Preformed Vitamin A – known as retinol – which is only found in foods of animal origin and

2. Provitamin A – known as carotene – which is found in food of both plant and animal origin.

Vitamin A is often displayed on commercial food labels as the additive beta carotene and this is the preferred form for supplementation.

Vitamin B

This helps our bodies to break down the food which we eat in order to provide us with energy. Vitamin B also helps with blood production and boosts normal appetite. A deficiency of vitamin B in the diet could lead to anaemia. The following foods are rich in vitamin B:

  •  Liver
  •  Eggs
  •  Beef and pork
  •   Beans  cereals
Vitamin C

This helps us to fight infection and maintain healthy skin and gums. Vitamin C also aids healing. A deficiency of vitamin C in the diet could lead to bleeding gums and the slow healing of wounds. The following foods are rich in vitamin C: 

  •  Fresh Fruit, especially citrus fruits like oranges and lemons
  •  Fresh Vegetables
  •  Potatoes
Vitamin D

This helps our bodies to develop strong teeth and bones. A deficiency of vitamin D in the diet could lead to rickets. Sunlight and the following foods are the source of Vitamin D:  

  •  Eggs
  •  Oily Fish
  •  Milk
  •  Dairy Products.
Vitamin E

This helps us to maintain healthy body cells and protect them from damage it also provides the body with more energy thus alleviating fatigue. A deficiency of vitamin E in the diet could lead to anaemia and eye damage. The following foods are rich in vitamin E: 

  •  Nuts
  •  Margarine
  •  Dark green leafy vegetables like cabbage and spinach
  •  Whole grains.
  • Minerals

In order for us to maintain a healthy body it is vital that we eat a huge range of minerals including calcium, iron, iodine, sulfur, potassium, manganese, sodium and cobalt. We can ensure we eat all of these minerals by eating a balance and varied diet. However the three main minerals needed by the body are:

  •  Calcium 
  • Iron
  •  Iodine

This helps to build strong bones and teeth and enables the body to form blood clots. A deficiency of calcium in the diet may lead to rickets or osteoporosis. Calcium can be found in the following foods:

  •  Milk
  •  Fish bones such as pilchards and sardines
  •  Leafy green vegetables such as cabbage

This helps with the production of blood. A lack of iron in the diet may lead to anaemia. Iron can be found in the following foods:

  •   Lean meat
  •  Liver
  •  Eggs
  •  Dried fruit

This is essential for our bodies to control the rate at which we break down and use the nutrients we consume. A deficiency of iodine in the diet may lead to lethargy, skin problems and low energy levels. Iodine can be found in the following foods:

  •  Fish
  •  Sea food.


We now know that the body needs nutrients which provide the body with energy and which help us to grow. It is also essential to remember that we need to consume some foods and drinks which, although they do not provide us with any energy or help us to grow, are still necessary in order for our bodies to operate properly. These foods are known as ‘non-nutrient foods’.

Non-nutrient foods fall into four main types:

  •  Water
  •  Fibre
  •  Alcohol
  •  Flavours and Colours.

Of these four types only water and fibre are essential for the human body to operate properly.


We all know how important water is. Though we could survive for many days without food it is highly unlikely that we would survive for more than three days without water. The main functions of water are to:

  •  Transport important nutrients around the body
  •  Control body temperature through the process of sweating
  •  Enable us to rid the body of waste products through the process of urination and defecation.

We can consume a sufficient amount of water by drinking pure water, drinking fruit juice/tea/coffee and other beverages and by eating foods which have a high water content.


Fibre helps to move food across the digestive system. Fibre is important in order to maintain a smooth passage of faeces through the body and avoid constipation. Fibre absorbs water into our faecal matter making it lighter and bulkier which in turn enables the digestive process to run smoothly. Fibre exists in grains, wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice.


Many teenagers experiment with alcohol and it is necessary to be aware of how it affects the body. Alcohol is a toxin and acts as a depressant; it contains high quantities of sugar and is absorbed into the blood stream from the stomach and small intestine then carried around the body: it is carried to the brain through the blood. Excessive alcohol can impair judgement and affect co-ordination.

Flavours and Colours

Most foods have colour and flavour added to them to make them look and taste better. All food colourings and flavourings must go through an approval process in order to ensure that they are safe to use in the European Union and they will carry a letter ‘E’ along with a number. Though approved, many ‘E’ numbers have been linked to various problems in children such as hyperactivity and asthma.

In principle additives are supposed to be safe. Nevertheless they can evoke allergic reactions in some children. Foods which contain large amounts of additives are sweets, savoury snacks, desserts and snack bars.Some of the most common additives in food which you should look out for on labels are:

Colourings: Tartrazine (E102) Sunset Yellow (E110)

Carmoisine (E122)

Ponceau 4R (E124) Preservatives: Sodium Benzoate (E211)

Encouraging healthy eating and food choices

Following are some practical tips for encouraging healthy eating and food choices as outlined by the Food Standards Agency:

  •  Base meals on starchy foods.
  •  Eat lots of fruit and vegetables.
  •  Eat more fish.
  •  Cut down on saturated fat and sugar.
  •  Eat less salt.
  •  Get active.
  •  Drink plenty of water.
  •  Don’t skip breakfast.

Let us now look at these eight tips:

Base meals on starchy food

Starchy foods consist of items such as:

  •  Bread
  •  Cereals  pasta
  •  Rice
  •  Potatoes.

Stiff foods must make up approximately a third of the food we consume. Starchy foods are a good source of energy; in addition to containing starch these foods also contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins. We should be aiming to include at least one of these starchy foods in our meals. Though many people avoid starchy foods because they consider them to be fattening they actually contain less than half the calories of fat gram for gram. Calorie content normally increases with the fats added when cooking and serving these particular foods.

When choosing starchy foods, opt for wholegrain, when possible. Wholegrain foods contain more fibre and other nutrients than white stiff foods. Wholegrain foods are also digested more slowly and thus help us to feel full for longer. Wholegrain foods include:

  •  Wholemeal and wholegrain bread
  •  Pitta
  •  Chapatti
  •  Wholewheat pasta
  •  Brown rice
  •  Wholegrain breakfast cereal.

 Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables

It is common knowledge that we need to consume a lot of fruit and vegetables and most people are aware of their importance, however most of us still aren’t consuming an adequate amount on a daily basis. We should be aiming to consume a minimum of five portions a day, and these could be in the form of:

  •  A piece of fruit as a snack
  •  Slices of fruit added to breakfast cereal
  •  A glass of fruit juice
  •  A side salad
  •  A portion of vegetables with your evening meal

Fruit and vegetables may take the form of fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or juices. It is essential to remember that potatoes, though a vegetable, are classed as a starchy food and not as a portion of fruit and vegetables.

Eat more fish

Fish is an excellent source of protein and most of us should be consuming more – at least one portion of oily fish per week. Oily fish is particularly beneficial as it is rich in certain types of fats known as omega 3 fatty acids which can help to keep the heart healthy. Samples of oily fish are salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, pilchards and fresh tuna. Examples of non-oily fish which are also healthy food choices are cod, haddock, plaice, coley, skate, hake and tinned tuna. Some fish contain high levels of mercury and should not be consumed more than once a week, these include swordfish, marlin and shark. Though fish may be fresh, frozen or canned it is essential to bear in mind that canned and smoked fish may be high in salt.

Cut down on saturated fat and sugar

There are two principal types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat may increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood which increases the chance of

developing heart disease if too much is consumed. Unsaturated fat lowers blood cholesterol and is important for remaining healthy. We should aim to cut down on foods which are high in saturated fat such as meat pies, sausages, hard cheese, butter, lard, pastry, cakes, biscuits and cream, and consume foods which are rich in unsaturated fat such as vegetable oils, oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds.

Most people in the United Kingdom eat too much sugar. We should always be striving to consume fewer foods which contain added sugar like sweets, cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks. Foods which are high in sugar increase the probability of tooth decay and are high in calories. Sugar is usually described on food labels as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, corn syrup and honey. If one of these explanations features near the top of the ingredients list it is an indication that the food is high in added sugar.

Eat less salt

Even if you don’t actually add salt to your meals this can not guarantee that your salt intake is not excessive. Adults and children over the age of 11 should not consume more than 6g of salt per day – children under the age of 11 should  eat even less. 75 per cent of the salt we eat is already in the food that we buy, such as breakfast cereals, ready-made meals, soups and sauces, therefore you may be getting more salt than is recommended without simply realising it. Eating too much salt may raise your blood pressure and people with high blood pressure are three times more likely to develop heart disease or get a stroke.

Get Active

Perfectly you should be neither overweight nor underweight as both can affect your health. Physical activity is a great way of using up extra calories and helps to control weight. Try to be dynamic every day and build up the amount of daily exercise you take. Walking as much as you can at a good pace will help you to start getting active.

 Drink Plenty of Water

We must be aiming to drink between six and eight glasses of water, or other fluids, every day in order to fight dehydration. When the weather is warm or after any kind of physical activity we should increase our fluid intake but avoid soft and fizzy drinks which are high in added sugar.

Don’t Skip breakfast

Breakfast is one of the most important meals as it sets us up for the day and provides us with essential energy. Missing meals is not a good way of regulating calorie intake as we also miss out on essential nutrients.