As you age, your body's dietary needs will change. These changes continue throughout life, with the nutritional requirements adjusting as we grow older.
On this page, we will briefly explore the change in nutritional needs for each life stage - infants, children, teens, adults, and the elderly.
Nutritional needs of babies
The Department of Health recommends that infants up to six months old are exclusively breastfed. Breast milk is full of the nutrients and antibodies that infants need.
Breastfeeding might not be for everyone, so bottle-feeding formula milk offers a great alternative. Typically, cow’s-milk-based formulas are recommended. But if you are unsure about which formula to give your baby, a nutritionist or midwife will be able to advise you.
Determining when to introduce solid foods to your baby’s diet can be tough. This process, known as ‘complementary feeding’ or ‘weaning’, generally begins after six months. These foods are introduced alongside breast or bottled milk.
Begin with soft, mashed foods such as bananas or mashed potatoes and gradually introduce new foods every few days. By the age of nine months, you can start to give your baby ‘finger foods’ such as pasta, chopped-up pieces of banana, and dry cereal.
Around this time, your baby’s milk teeth are likely to start breaking through, which can be a difficult period for both infants and parents. To reduce irritation, you can try teething gel or powder on your baby’s gums, teething rings, or soothing fruits like melon.
Nutritional requirements for children
The nutritional requirements for toddlers and preschool children begin from 12 months up until five years old. By then, they need all of the essential nutrients to aid a growing body.
At this age, you can start to feed them the same healthy foods as the rest of the family. In the early years, they will need help managing their meals - such as cutting up food and helping with feeding. By the age of five, they should be able to manage mealtimes independently.
Young children have boundless energy. Incorporating key food groups is an important way to ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need. These include carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, dairy, protein, and good-quality fats. Ensuring the child has a balanced diet containing the essential food groups and nutrients - vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, and zinc - can be difficult if your child is a fussy eater.
‘Fussy eating’ is very common. Parents and carers may worry that their child is not getting enough of the correct nutrients. Fortunately, it’s often not a cause for concern if your child is active, gaining weight, and is otherwise well in themselves.
If you are finding your child’s eating behaviours challenging, try these nutritional tips:
- Offer fruit and vegetables at every opportunity starting with breakfast.
- Try introducing healthy, yet tasty, smoothies into your child’s diet if they don’t like eating fruit and vegetables from a plate.
- Hiding vegetables in foods such as Bolognese and other pasta sauces is a good way of providing the recommended five a day without them realising.
- Sometimes children can get enough of a particular food. So if they love apples then refrain from overfeeding them.
- Keep offering new foods but don’t force them to eat them if they don’t want to; it can take them up to 20 times of tasting something to like it.
In this video, Happiful chats with baby and child nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed about complementary feeding and what to feed your children.
Healthy eating for kids
Starting school can be very daunting - not only for children but for parents, too. This is the time when, for at least one meal a day, a child may be in charge of what they eat.
For parents who do not opt for their children to have school dinners, choosing what they have in their packed lunch can be a tough task. Take a look at our healthy eating for kids and lunchbox ideas pages to get some inspiration on how to supply balanced meals that kids will enjoy.
The great thing about working with a registered nutritionist or nutritional therapist is that the support you receive will be tailor made to your specific child and their individual needs.
Catherine Jeans DipION MBANT CNHC on helping your child eat well.
Nutritional tips for schoolchildren:
- Try to offer healthy snack alternatives to crisps, chocolate and biscuits, such as fruit, popcorn or rice cakes.
- Encourage three set meal times - breakfast, lunch and dinner - with healthy snacks between.
- Try to educate your child about healthy eating if they buy their own meals at school.
- Be supportive of physical activities and sports they wish to try. Try introducing them to sports that you can play together.
Healthy eating for teenagers
When a child enters their teenage years, they tend to start making their own choices about their own social life, nutrition, and education. Adolescence is also the time when teenagers' bodies start to change as they enter puberty. A balanced diet is essential in supporting teens’ changing hormones.
Teenagers may refuse certain types of food and skip meals, for example. In this instance, parents should try to set a good example at home. Stocking the fridge with healthy snacks is a great way to ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need at home. You may also try an 80:20 diet, where 80% of the food they eat is healthy, leaving 20% for an occasional treat.
Try to ensure that your teen is getting enough essential nutrients like calcium and Vitamin C to support their accelerated growth. Iron is especially important in people who have periods as it’s lost during menstruation.
Find out more about nutrition and pre-menstrual syndrome.
Sometimes, teenagers - particularly girls - can have a distorted view of their body image that might lead them to think they need to lose weight. The most common avenues that they might explore to achieve this include unhealthy fasting, skipping meals, and avoiding all sugary foods and snacks.
If you do suspect your teenager may have a disordered relationship with food, your GP or local nurse will be able to offer advice and confidential information about the next steps.
Dietary needs for adults
The majority of our body’s growth and development will be over when we enter adulthood. We can now shift our focus to nutrition and maintaining a physically active and healthy lifestyle. This will help reduce the risk of weight, age, and lifestyle-related diseases.
Whilst adults will need similar amounts of nutrients, they will differ slightly depending on factors such as sex, age, and physical activity. For example, the more exercise you do, the more calories you’ll need to consume.
If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, find out about the vitamins and minerals you need.
Nutrition for the elderly
It is important to focus on good nutrition for the elderly as our bodies change and face a number of limitations when we grow older. We need to consider foods that support heart, bone, and dental health. Specifically, Age UK recommends that people over 65 take vitamin D supplements.
Many may experience reduced mobility. This can make it harder for older people to get to the shops to buy ingredients for balanced meals. For elderly people living alone, it can be hard to find the motivation to cook hearty, nutritious meals.
Tips for older people include:
- Freezing food and purchasing long-life foods. These can be great ways to introduce and maintain the dietary requirements and nutritional needs of an older adult or elderly person.
- Snacking on healthier options such as whole-grain toast, fruit or porridge can help you get through the day if you can’t manage three full meals.
- Try cooking large meals and split them up into individual portions. Freezing them will enable you to have a number of cooking-free days and give you the nutrients and minerals you need to stay healthy.
Whatever your age or health concern, a nutritional professional can support you to take care of your mind and body. If you feel you’d benefit from working with a nutritional therapist, you can find a professional that resonates with you using our guided search.