Posted on Mar. 29th, 2016 at 10:30am
By Kelly Walsh, PhD, MBA, RD Associate Director, Nutrition Sciences Mead Johnson Nutrition
Good nutrition helps set the stage for health and wellness throughout life. Perhaps the most critical window for good nutrition is the period of time from infancy through adolescence. This is when virtually every part of the body is rapidly developing. The foods we consume provide nutrients that serve as the fuel and building blocks for growth and development. While all foods support growth and development, some are better than others in doing so.
Brain growth falls within this important developmental window. The brain grows to over three quarters of its final size during the first three years of life. While all nutrients are important to support brain growth, some nutrients – such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – have been shown in clinical studies to positively impact measures of cognitive development. Our bodies have the ability to synthesize DHA from alpha-linolenic acid; however, a dietary source of this omega-3 fatty acid is required since our bodies can’t produce it. Additionally, the amount of DHA that the body is able to produce during infancy is limited. This is a clear example of how early nutrition can have a long-lasting impact.
The skeletal architecture is also rapidly growing during this developmental period. Bones continue to grow in length throughout mid- to late-adolescence, and peak bone density is achieved by early adulthood. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone growth. Calcium is a physical component of the bone, whereas vitamin D helps with absorption of calcium from the diet. Our bodies make vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight; however, vitamin D synthesis is limited when the skin is covered with clothing or sunscreen. Dietary sources of both vitamin D and calcium are, therefore, required to support optimal bone growth.
Good nutrition practices early on can also help to set children up for healthy body weight management throughout life. This is important, because unhealthy body weight resulting from either under- or over-nutrition has been linked to numerous adverse health outcomes. While no foods are able to completely stave off adverse health issues, wise food choices help to support overall health and development.
Modeling good nutrition practices early for children helps teach them to make wise nutritional choices in the future. A key to great nutrition is providing a variety of balanced meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Sweets and treats are fine for children, but they should be given in moderation. It’s also important to ensure that children engage in plenty of physical activity during this window of development. These are just a few examples of how crucial early nutrition is to healthy growth and development. Parents and caregivers have a unique opportunity early in their children’s lives to set the foundation for good nutrition practices for a lifetime.
Dr. Walsh is the associate director of nutrition science for Mead Johnson Nutrition, North America. He is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at The Ohio State University, and an adjunct assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Indiana University School of Medicine. He received his doctorate in Nutritional Biochemistry from The Ohio State University where he also received his training as a registered dietitian and nutritionist. His current research interests include premature infant nutrition and metabolism, physiology and biochemistry of lactogenesis, and bioavailability of dietary bioactive components, and he has authored multiple peer-reviewed publications on these topics.