By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Nutrition is an important part of health, supporting development at each stage of life, beginning with pregnancy and continuing through infancy, early childhood, adolescence and adulthood. People have different nutritional needs at each life stage, which is why the expanded 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that, for the first time, includes guidelines for pregnancy, lactation and birth to 24 months is so important.
Emerging research identifies the first 1,000 days of a person’s life as an important time to meet nutritional needs. Throughout pregnancy, a mother’s diet is the only source of nutrition for her baby. Striving to eat a variety of healthy foods during pregnancy sets the stage for a healthy eating pattern and helps lay the foundation for a lifetime of good health. Key nutrients during this life stage are protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, folic acid, choline, iodine, calcium and vitamin D. Several of these nutrients are important for brain development, beginning in the last trimester of pregnancy and continuing through toddlerhood. Eating patterns that include whole foods (fruits, vegetables, milk and dairy foods, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats) ensure that both mother and baby get enough of these key nutrients.
In the first few years of life, milk and dairy foods provide children with essential nutrients that are important for growth and development. Research shows that what children drink from birth through age 5 can have a big impact on their health since beverages make up such a large part of their intake during this life stage. Recommendations from Healthy Eating Research, a consensus report from leading health organizations, highlight the importance of water and plain, pasteurized dairy milk after age 1 as the go-to beverages for hydration and nutrition to support growth and bone health. Experts also recommend limiting 100% fruit juice and avoiding plant-based beverages that are not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk as a replacement for drinking milk. Additionally, sugar-sweetened beverages are not recommended for children because they often displace nutritious foods that are important for growth and development.
As a child grows older, eating an excessive amount of sugar can be problematic, as poor eating habits that are established in adolescence can impact health into adulthood. Highly processed foods, especially sweets and snack foods, not only displace high-quality foods but also increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. During adolescence, a person’s diet should include adequate amounts of calories, protein, healthy fat, calcium, vitamin D, iron and fiber. This can be achieved by eating a variety of whole, minimally processed foods, which are nourishing and leave little room for highly processed snacks and beverages. Milk and dairy foods are an important source of nutrients for this age group, providing a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, along with calcium, phosphorus and potassium, all of which support bone health, growth and academic success.
A healthy eating pattern that is built in adolescence can be carried forward into the next stage of life. Though each life stage has unique characteristics, many of the nutrients needed during adolescence continue to be important for adults. Studies show both children and adults are not getting enough of four key nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber, which are important for bone and heart health and for maintaining a healthy weight. Increasing daily intake of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and dairy would provide greater amounts of these nutrients. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products daily and choose healthy fats and oils, including nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils.
These same guidelines apply to older adults (65 years and older), with additional recommendations for consuming more vitamin D and vitamin B12 but with fewer daily calories. Though energy needs are lower, nutritional needs remain the same or greater, highlighting the importance of diet quality and choosing high-quality foods.
Healthy eating guidelines for all life stages continue to move away from focusing on single nutrients or calories and instead focus on overall diet quality and healthy eating patterns. Whole and minimally processed foods contain a variety of nutrients that work together to nourish and provide health benefits beyond their individual nutrients; this process is known as food synergy. That is why emphasis is now being placed on eating a variety of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. For more information about what people should eat and drink to promote health, visit our blog review of the newly updated 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines.
Nutrition is key to achieving optimal health, and supporting children by providing them with access to healthy food and nutrition education can help improve their nutrition and overall health. Teaching science-based nutrition education that focuses on overall diet quality and the importance of choosing wholesome foods encourages children to build healthier eating habits. Educators and health professionals can access free, science-based nutrition education resources to teach children and families about the importance of healthy eating for lifelong good health.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
The newly released 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide recommendations on what Americans should eat + drink to promote health.
Kristal Shelden, RDN, explains what diet quality is, and what makes up a high-quality diet.