Nutrients are substances the body cannot make on its own but we have to have in order to maintain good health. There are six essential nutrient groups: Protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. Ten “key” nutrients are essential for a child’s healthy growth and development. Here is a list of how they function and what their sources are.
10 Key Nutrients Kids Must Have
Every cell in our body requires protein. Protein is needed as a component of red blood cells, for building and repairing skin and tissue, for the production of hormones, enzymes and antibodies as well as for muscle and bone growth. Sources for protein are found in all animal products (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt), and also in grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Plant nutrients, however, do not produce complete protein for lack of one or more of the essential amino acids, which make up the building blocks of protein. Vegans who are committed to a strictly vegetarian diet must make up for the missing amino acids by a “mix-and-match” approach in their food choices, that is to find combinations of plant-based nutrients that can produce complete protein.
Although it may sound counter-intuitive, it is a fact that fat has an important nutritional value. Fat carries fat-soluble vitamins and provides essential fatty acids (linoleic and linolenic acids), which the body can’t make. Fat is also a major component of the cell membrane. It cushions inner organs, insulates against cold temperature and maintains the health of skin and hair. On the downside, fat contains saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids and more than twice as many calories as carbohydrate and protein.
Fat falls into two broad categories: saturated and unsaturated (poly- and mono-unsaturated). Most foods contain a mixture of both. These are the different types and their food sources:
Saturated fat (“bad” fat)
Saturated fat is primarily of animal origin, but it also exists in tropical oils. Be aware of its presence in meat, poultry and dairy products, such as luncheon meats, hot dogs, whole milk, ice cream, cheese, butter, palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, vegetable shortening and hydrogenated oil.
Unsaturated fat (“good” fat)
Food sources of poly- and monounsaturated fat originate mostly from plants and cold-water fish. The best source for these fats is fish, especially salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring, but also plant oils, such as olive oil and canola oil. Avocado, safflower, sesame seed and soybean oils are also good sources of unsaturated fat.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy and the preferred fuel for muscles and brain. There are two groups: complex carbohydrates (starches), which consist of numerous sugar units, and simple carbohydrates, with only single sugar units. In addition to sugar, complex carbohydrates provide fiber (important for a healthy digestive system), a multitude of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (health-enhancing plant chemicals).
Foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates include whole-grain breads, cereal, rice, pasta as well as fruits, vegetables and legumes. Because of their structural complexity, these carbohydrates take longer to break down into simple sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose) during digestion. Consequently, they move more slowly into the bloodstream and tend not to increase blood sugar levels rapidly.
Foods rich in simple carbohydrates are predominantly present in white and brown sugar, honey, syrup, molasses, sodas (non-diet), candy, refined processed foods and baked goods. Simple carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed and elevate blood sugar levels almost instantly. High levels of sugar in the blood stream cause the pancreas to release insulin in an effort to keep the blood sugar content within normal limits. If the pancreas secretes too much insulin in a kind of overreaction against the rising blood sugar content, a “rebound drop” can occur, leading to a new sugar low. That, in turn, stimulates more appetite, especially for sugar.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble nutrient that needs to be replenished every day because the body doesn’t store it. If more vitamin C than needed is present, it will be flushed out in the urine. Vitamin C has many functions, such as healing wounds, aiding iron absorption and developing connective tissue. It is also a powerful antioxidant. As an aid in the formation of collagen (the first layer of new tissue growth), it initiates the early steps of growth and healing. Without sufficient vitamin C, wounds bleed longer, gums bleed more easily and skin cuts or scrapes won’t heal as well.
Thankfully, vitamin C is easily available through any diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Major dietary sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, broccoli and other green and yellow vegetables.