Kid Nutrition: Nutrients to Grow On (cont.)

Fiber: Complex yet Simple

Kids need fiber for good nutrition and healthy growth. But fiber is an oddity among carbohydrates. It's a complex carbohydrate minus the calories. Your child can't digest dietary fiber to get at the energy it provides, so what's so good about it?

"Kids need fiber for the same reasons adults do," says Rarback. "And like their elders, children get way less fiber than they need."

Rarback says studies show fiber wards off type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels in adults, and, possibly, in children. Fiber's confirmed benefits for kids include fending off constipation and promoting fullness. High-fiber foods, including whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, keep kids fuller for longer, a boon in the battle of the bulge. And fiber-filled foods are rich in vitamins and minerals.

To figure fiber for kids, Rarback uses the method endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and you can, too. Simply add five to your child's age to determine daily fiber needs in grams. So, a 13-year-old needs about 18 grams a day.

Having a number in mind helps with reading food labels, but it's not necessary to track every gram of fiber your child eats. "Instead, make whole grains, fruits, and vegetables available to your child every day, and consider adding legumes to your family's meals to get the fiber your child needs," recommends Rarback.

Antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and the mineral selenium, receive a lot of attention for their potential to head off chronic conditions in adults, including cancer and heart disease. While their effects are still under study, experts regard antioxidants as the "superheroes" of nutrients.

Antioxidants battle the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are by-products of normal metabolism that also form when you're exposed to air pollution, cigarette smoke, and strong sunlight. As free radicals accumulate, they can damage DNA, the genetic blueprint for cell reproduction, as well as other cell parts.

"Antioxidants may give your child's immune system a boost," Ayoob says. "Since they're not available in pills, kids need food for antioxidants."

While there's no research to back up the effects of antioxidants on a child's well-being, Ayoob and Rarback agree that you can't go wrong by offering children antioxidant-rich foods, such as whole grains and produce.

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including blueberries and other berries, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, cherries, and carrots are among the produce offering the most antioxidants.

Iron Is a Crucial Nutrient

Your child depends on iron to grow. An important part of red blood cells, iron ferries oxygen to every cell in the body. Iron also plays a lesser-known role in brain development and function.

"Iron is so critical to brain development that the negative effects of a daily iron deficiency on cognition may be irreversible, even when the shortfall is small," Rarback says.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in America, affecting mostly older infants, young children, and women in the childbearing years. Small children are at risk because they grow so fast. Teenage girls and women must make up for monthly blood losses with iron-rich foods or dietary supplements. An iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which often saps a child's energy.

Both animal and plant foods provide iron. Animal products, such as meat, dark meat poultry, and seafood, supply heme iron, the form of iron the body absorbs the best. Plant foods, including spinach and legumes, supply nonheme iron. Nonheme iron is also the type of iron added to breads, cereals, pasta, rice, and fortified grains.

A steady supply of fortified grains can provide enough iron, even for those who don't eat meat and who should take a daily multivitamin with iron for safety's sake.

Also, "you can boost nonheme iron absorption by adding a source of vitamin C," says Ayoob. "Offer kids foods such as oranges, orange juice, tomatoes, kiwi, strawberries, or red bell pepper with each meal to make the most of nonheme iron."

Published March 28, 2005.

SOURCES: Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA, associate professor department of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, director of nutrition and associate professor, Mailman Center for Child Development, University of Miami. National Dairy Council. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, Fifth Edition, by American Academy of Pediatrics. Institute of Medicine.

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