What is proper nutrition for kids, really?


As parents we tend to think we know what’s good for our kids, but our knowledge is mostly of the general variety. We know they need to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and try to avoid excessive amounts of unhealthy fats, salt and sugar. But, do you know the specifics? How many calories a day does a child need? Do you know which nutrients your child is not likely getting in sufficient quantities? How would you know if there was a problem with your child's development?

Know your food groups

Canadians of a certain age remember the old Canada Food Guide, which recommended that kids select foods from each of the four basic food groups:

  • Meats,
  • Grains,
  • Dairy, and
  • Fruits and vegetables.

Well of course, that’s all changed today, and the 2019 Canada Food Guide breaks food down into three groups. Dairy is no longer it’s own group, meat is part of a group called “protein foods" and some parents are scratching their heads. One good thing we get from the new food guide is a sense of how a child’s calories should ideally be split. Fruits and vegetables should be fully half of all the calories your child eats every day. The rest should be split between whole grains and protein foods that could include meat, but the Guide recommends including more plant-based proteins, nuts and legumes because they’re lower in fat.

With childhood obesity such a big issue, it’s surprising we don’t talk more about what an appropriate daily calorie count might be. Obviously, optimal calorie count will vary based on a child’s size and the amount of physical activity they do, but a good guide for kids 6-12 years old is between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day. There are lots of kids who are eating much more than that, but the problem is almost never the calories alone, but where they come from. Both adults and kids in Canada, on average, get more than half of their calories from carbohydrates like bread, pasta and chips, and sugar. Most kids don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, and that hasn’t changed much in spite of considerable efforts to improve nutritional awareness.

Read: Back to school: tips to keep your kids healthy and safe

Even if your child is within a healthy range in terms of their calorie intake, if they eat too much of the wrong calories (foods high in salt, sugar and saturated or trans fats) and not enough of other calories, they can be at risk for serious problems later in life, like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. They also may not be getting enough of certain essential nutrients.

Read: Blood pressure and heart health – It’s all about risk

Because of the nature of our North American diet, there are certain vitamins and minerals that are common deficiencies.

  • Iron – One quarter of the world’s population doesn’t get enough iron. In extreme cases, this can lead to anemia, which is characterized by chronic fatigue, weakness, impaired brain and immune function. Sources of dietary iron include red meat, beans, and leafy greens like broccoli, spinach and kale. Taking iron supplements can be dangerous and should only be done in consultation with a doctor.

Read: Are the supplements you’re taking helping or harming your health? To know for sure, just ask your pharmacist

  • Calcium – Most of us don’t get enough calcium. Kids who don’t get enough calcium risk osteoporosis later in life, and generally weaker bones. To get more calcium in your kids' diet, include fish, dairy and those same wonderful leafy greens that can help with iron. You shouldn’t give your kids calcium supplements without consulting a physician.

  • Magnesium – This is another common deficiency in the North American diet, possibly leading to an irregular heartbeat, cramps, restless leg syndrome and an increased incidence of soft tissue pain. I.e. fibromyalgia and headaches. If the deficiency is prolonged it can contribute to type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. Magnesium is found in whole grains, nuts, dark chocolate, and yes, you guessed it, leafy greens.

Eat your greens!

It seems that your grandmother wasn’t completely off base when she told you to eat your greens. They contain a lot of the nutrients that we generally lack, and we can virtually eat them to our heart’s content because they are very low in calories. This is not to say that other foods aren’t important, but we generally get plenty of those foods. So listen to your grandma…

Your pharmacist can help

It’s not always easy for a parent to know if their children are developing in a healthy way. If you have concerns about your child’s weight, or if you think they may not be getting proper nutrition, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about it. They may put your mind at ease, or perhaps they can confirm that a problem exists by referencing your child’s growth charts over the years. If your child is not in the healthy range for weight or other key development indicators, your healthcare provider can help you take the appropriate steps to get them back on the right track.