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Kids: Getting Complete Nutrition

Vegetables, grains, fruits, legumes, and nuts are the optimal foods for children. Rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, these foods form the foundation for dietary habits that support a lifetime of health.


The complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, beans, and vegetables provide the ideal energy to fuel a child’s busy life. Helping children to cultivate a taste for brown rice, whole–wheat breads and pastas, rolled oats, and corn, as well as the less common grains barley, quinoa, and millet, will boost the fiber and nutrient content of their diets. In addition, steering children away from sweets, sugary drinks, highly processed baked products, and overly sweet cereals will help them avoid overeating and gaining unwanted weight. Parents may wish to limit juices as well, since children may fill up on them, preferring their sweetness to other foods.


Children need protein to grow, but they do not need high–protein, animal–based foods. A varied menu of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits supplies plenty of protein. The “protein deficiencies” that our parents worried about in impoverished countries were the result of starvation or diets restricted to very few food items. Protein deficiency is extremely unlikely on a diet drawn from a variety of plant foods.


Excellent sources of calcium include beans, dried figs, sweet potatoes, and green vegetables, including collards, kale, broccoli, mustard greens, and Swiss chard. Fortified soymilk and rice milk and calcium–fortified juices provide a great deal of calcium, as well. In addition, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, excluding animal proteins, and limiting salt intake all help the body retain calcium.


Very young children may need a slightly higher fat intake than adults do. Healthier fat sources include soybean products, avocados, and nut butters. Soy “hot dogs,” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, seasoned veggie burgers, and avocado chunks in salads, for example, are very well accepted.


However, the need for fat in the diet should not be taken too far. American children often have fatty streaks in the arteries–the beginnings of heart disease–before they finish high school. In contrast, Japanese children traditionally grew up on diets much lower in fat and subsequently had fewer problems with diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases.


Parents will want to make sure their child’s diet includes a regular source of vitamin B12, which is needed for healthy blood and nerve function. Deficiencies are rare, but when they happen, they can be  slightly hard to detect. Vitamin B12 is plentiful in many commercial cereals, fortified soy and rice milks, and nutritional yeast. Check the labels for the words cyanocobalamin or B12. Children who do not eat these supplemented products should take a B12 supplement of 3 or more micrograms per day. Common children’s vitamins contain more than enough B12. Spirulina and seaweed are not reliable sources of vitamin B12.

Vitamin D

The body also requires vitamin D, which children and parents will be happy to know can be obtained by simply playing outdoors in the sun. Fifteen to 20 minutes of daily sunlight on the hands and face is enough sun exposure for the body’s skin cells to produce the necessary vitamin D. Children in latitudes with diminished sunlight may need the vitamin D found in multivitamin supplements or fortified non–dairy milks.


Growing children also need the iron found in a variety of beans and green leafy vegetables. The vitamin C in vegetables and fruits enhances iron absorption, especially when eaten together with an iron–rich food. One example is an iron–rich bean burrito eaten with vitamin C–rich tomato salsa. Few people are aware that cow’s milk is very low in iron and can induce a mild, chronic blood loss in the digestive tract, which can reduce iron and cause an increased risk of anemia.