Public nutrition information, by and large, is addressed to adults. Reducing calories, fats, sugar, cholesterol and sodium has been the battle cry for healthy adults since the government turned out its guidelines for disease prevention and good health in the late '70s.
But a shift in focus to children and their diets may be looming as awareness surfaces that diets suitable for adults may not apply to children.
According to nutritionists, a social preoccupation with thinness on one hand and overeating as a result of sedentary habits on the other has created confusion about children's diets.
Despite good intentions, fear of obesity forces many of today's slim-minded--and even health-minded--parents to impose adult dietary standards on children. (See accompanying story on Page 10.) For some children, such a practice may do more harm than good if the fact is ignored that children may require more calories than adults for proper growth.
"This could be a problem, depending on the extent to which modifications or restrictions are made," said Linda Brown, chief therapeutic nutritionist of Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. "There can be a definite problem if nonfat or low-fat milk is given to children under a year old, both in terms of protein load that is placed on developing kidneys and the normal requirements for essential fatty acids. We advise parents to consult pediatricians on the appropriate age for modifying fat content. Otherwise, a switch to low-fat milk (not nonfat) is probably acceptable at age 2 or more, provided that the child is growing normally and is consuming sufficient calories from other sources."
Dr. Fima Lifshitz, at Cornell University Medical College cautions parents to "think twice" before modifying milk products in children's diets. "I don't think nonfat or low-fat milk is appropriate for children who are normal," Lifshitz said. "They should be left alone to eat normally and naturally. If a child is overweight, then you might consider low-fat dairy products."
Nutritionist Dr. Jerzy Meduski suggests maintaining whole milk until the child has achieved puberty as a safety precaution in providing the proper balance of essential fatty acids during the growing years.
It is scientifically known that caloric requirements are greater during children's peak growing periods than during adult years.
For instance, caloric needs for school-age children 7 to 10 years old averages 2,400 calories per day, compared with about 2,000 for adult women, ages 23 to 50. Growing school-age boys may require as many as 3,300 calories if active, compared with 2,700 for men, ages 23 to 50. Even 2- and 3-year-old toddlers require a calorie range between 900 and 1,800 calories per day--as great as that of a maintenance diet for an adult (1,800 calories).
Resources are available for parents interested in healthful diets for their children.
The California Dietary Assn. is an excellent source for answering consumer questions about nutrition or for referrals to qualified dietitians in your area who can help design diets or offer group or private counseling. The 24-hour referral service telephone number: (213) 459-9343.
The U.S. Government Printing Office offers excellent nutrition information for appropriate children's diets. For a catalogue list of many free or low-cost pamphlets and brochures on child nutrition, write: Consumer Information Catalogue, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.
A newly released book for parents, "Parents' Guide to Nutrition: Healthy Eating From Birth Through Adolescence" by Dr. Susan Baker and Roberta R. Henry, registered dietitian of Boston Children's Hospital (Addison-Wesley: $16.95), is also a good reference book. It explains basic principles of nutrition, including when to start infants on solid foods, how to maintain a balanced diet for school-age children, channeling teen-agers' diets and other dietary problems.
There are specific dietary concerns to consider within each age group when planning overweight or normal-weight children's diets or guiding their eating habits.
Brown commented on some of those concerns and provided guidelines for proper meal patterns. (See sample menus on Page 10.)
According to Brown, there should be no dietary problems if the four-food-group formula is used as the base for a good diet, no matter what age or sex.
The Basic Four Food Groups dietary system was devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture several decades ago to ensure consumption of all the nutrients needed for good health. The groups are: the fruit and vegetable group, the dairy-product group, the meat group (includes fish, eggs, legumes and nuts) and the grains group. Servings from each of the food groups vary with each age group.
Brown advises that parents plan meals according to the food groups even though doing so may pose a challenge, especially with younger children who often prefer the same foods day after day.
Here are Brown's tips on feeding children from 1 to 18, beginning with the toddlers: