Food and nutrition for kids: An evidence-based guide

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© 2009-14 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

New research offers important insights about nutrition for kids.

For example, studies confirm that, for their body weight, children burn more fat (Kostyak et al 2007). These and other observations suggest that many seemingly natural, healthful diets for adults are opens in a new windowinappropriate for children. 

What else should parents keep in mind? Here is an index to evidence-based articles about feeding children.

Babies. Researchers are also investigating our children’s earliest experiences with food. It turns out that some taste preferences may be opens in a new window formed in the womb. Food preferences are also shaped by flavors opens in a new windowin breast milk and baby formula. In addition, babies are influenced by the choices parents make with solid foods. For more information, see this article about opens in a new windowgetting babies to eat new foods.

Fish, mercury, and nutrition for kids. Fish oil contains healthful omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial for brain development. Moreover, fish consumption has been linked with better cognitive development. But people are concerned about mercury in fish, and these are legitimate concerns. For highlights of the research and a guide to choosing the right fish, see this article about opens in a new windowmercury levels in fish.

Iron. Laboratory analyses confirm which opens in a new windowfoods are the best sources of iron. But more importantly, experimental research helps us understand how we can opens in a new windowimprove iron absorption.

Milk. There is a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense written about the dangers of cow’s milk and milk products. Invariably, the writers fail to cite the relevant studies. The truth? There are good and potentially bad things about milk. Whether or not milk consumption is worthwhile depends on what other choices you have. For the details, see this evidence-based look at opens in a new windowthe costs and benefits of milk consumption for kids.

Paleolithic nutriton for kids. The latest research about opens in a new windownutrition for kids seems to support a prehistoric approach to eating.

For instance, it appears that modern agricultural diets–the diets associated with affluent, industrial nations–are in many ways inferior to the diets of our Stone Age ancestors.

In part, this is because agricultural diets are relatively new.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans ate only wild plant and animal foods. Then, around 10,000 years ago, people began the shift to agriculture and animal husbandry. Humans began eating food types they’d never eaten before. The human body, adapted to digest a Paleolithic diet, was suddenly challenged with an agricultural diet.

Four hundred generations later, descendants of the first farmers have evolved new adaptations for coping with new foods (Patin and Quintana-Murci 2008). For instance, some people retain the ability to digest milk sugars after infancy.

Others possess genes that produce extra amylase–an enzyme that breaks down dietary starch (Perry et al 2007). Indeed, there is evidence that our ancestors began eating starchy roots and tubers long before the advent of agriculture (e.g., Gibbons 2009; or, better yet, read anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s witty and absorbing book, opens in a new windowCatching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

But humans haven’t had enough time to adapt completely to the new menu of saturated fats and highly refined, highly processed cereals. Some anthropologists argue that 21st century diets are responsible for many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes (Cordain et al 2005).

So I think it’s worth a review. What can Stone Age menu teach us about nutrition for kids? Perhaps that the traditional food pyramid–which tells us to eat lots of bread and rice–is misguided.

For more information, read this article about the  opens in a new windowlikely benefits of Paleolithic nutrition for kids.

Picky eaters. Are you having trouble getting your child to try new foods? Or to eat his vegetables? Some kids are  opens in a new windowpredisposed to be picky eaters. But research suggests several good strategies for coping with picky eaters, such as pairing new foods with sweet flavors. To learn more, see these  opens in a new windowevidence-based tips for dealing with picky eaters.

Probiotics and Prebiotics. Food and supplement manufacturers are pushing prebiotics and probiotics. Are the claims overblown? Perhaps. But studies suggest that probiotic supplements can be  opens in a new windowan effective treatment for diarrhea, and the daily consumption of prebiotics may  opens in a new windowbolster the immune system. 

Vitamin A supplements: Are your kids getting too much A? Kids with diagnosed deficiencies may need extra sources of vitamin A. But many well-nourished kids might be getting too much retinol, or vitamin A, in their multivitamin supplements.  opens in a new windowHere are the details.


References: The science of nutrition for kids

Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, et al. 2005. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr 81: 341-354.

Gibbons A. 2009. Of tools and tubers. Science 324 (5927): 588 – 589.

Patin E, Quintana-Murci L. 2008. Demeter’s legacy: rapid changes to our genome imposed by diet. Trends Ecol Evol. 2:56-9.

Perry GH, Dominy NJ, Claw KG, Lee AS, Fiegler H, Redon R, Werner J, Villanea FA, Mountain JL, Misra R, Carter NP, Lee C, and Stone AC. 2007. Diet and the evolution of human salivary amylase gene copy number. Nat. Genet. 39(10): 1256–1260.

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