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A Quick Guide to Changing Nutrient Needs as We Age 


From the moment humans are conceived, they require nutrients to grow, develop, thrive, and adapt. Over the course of the human life cycle, nutrient requirements change significantly to accommodate the demands of the physiological priorities of tissues and cells.  

At the same time, we experience significant psychological and social changes that impact how we relate to one another, how we see our bodies, how we gain access to food, and countless other changes.  

As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist or nutrition professional, understanding how nutrient needs change throughout the life cycle is a small yet vital part of providing guidance and support to clients with understanding the importance of eating foods that nourish the body and support long-term health.  

The human life cycle is often divided into six stages:  

  • Pregnancy and lactation  
  • Infancy 
  • Childhood 
  • Adolescence 
  • Adulthood 
  • Later years, or older adulthood 

This article provides you with an introduction to nutrient changes as we age, including main physiological changes and primary differences in nutrient requirements.  

Nutrition in Pregnancy and Lactation 

Balanced nutrition and wellness before and during pregnancy and after giving birth are of vital importance to the health of the mother and the child.  

As soon as conception occurs, the embryo’s development depends on the mother’s nutritional status prior to pregnancy. During pregnancy, the pregnant person’s nutritional status and overall well-being impact the development of the embryo (up until week eight of pregnancy) and fetus (up until birth). Requirements for energy and most nutrients increase as well as the body’s basal metabolism. The diet needs to support the pregnant person’s body in addition to supporting the growth and development of the embryo and fetus.  

After giving birth, the body’s primary focus is on healing itself and supplying enough milk for the newborn child if the pregnant person chooses to breastfeed. The infant’s sole food source will be breast milk, formula, or a combination until they are about six months old. 

Increased Nutrients Required During Pregnancy 

  • Energy (at least one additional meal a day) 
  • Protein 
  • Essential fatty acids, including omega-3 DHA and EPA 
  • Vitamin A 
  • Vitamin C 
  • B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate) 
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Iron 
  • Zinc
  • Copper  
  • Iodine 
  • Water 

Increased Nutrients Required During Lactation (Breastfeeding) 

  • Energy (at least two extra meals a day) 
  • Vitamin A 
  • Vitamin C 
  • Vitamin E 
  • B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate) 
  • Sodium (applies only to individuals under age 18) 
  • Water 

Nutrition in Infancy 

A child is in the infancy stage of development for the first two years of life. The first two years of life are marked by rapid physiological, emotional, psychological, and social development; these changes affect and depend on feeding and nutritional intake.  

Regarding feeding alone, infants experience rapid changes in their nutritional requirements, and this requires them to learn new eating skills within short periods of time. After depending solely on breast milk or formula, complementary foods should be introduced at about six months of age.  

The complementary feeding stage can be a period of stress and anxiety for parents and caretakers who are responsible for introducing foods; they may worry about whether their child is eating enough or too much, eating the “right” foods, and developing expected feeding skills in a timely manner, among countless other worries. 

During infancy, the child’s nutrients come primarily from breast milk or formula before the first year of life. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breastfeeding for at least the first two years.  

Breast milk offers multiple advantages over formula, including being linked with improved cognitive development, decreased incidence and severity of infections, and saving the family money. The nutrition in breast milk also evolves to meet the child’s nutritional needs.  

It is important to note, however, breastfeeding isn’t appropriate for all families for a variety of reasons, in which case formula is a healthy and safe option for infants.  

For your reference, below is a summary of the nutrient composition mature breast milk provides.  

Breast Milk Nutrient Composition 

  • Water = 87–89% 
  • Vitamins (particularly vitamin A) 
  • Fat = 3–5% 
  • Energy = 60–70 kcal/100 ml 
  • Carbohydrate (lactose) = 6.9–7.2% 
  • Mineral = 0.2% 
  • Protein = 0.8–0.9% 

Increased Nutrients Required During Infancy   

  • Protein 
  • Essential fatty acids 
  • Calcium  
  • Iron 
  • Vitamin D
  • Phosphate 

Nutrition in Childhood 

The period after infancy and before puberty is referred to as childhood. It is the quietest period of growth, as compared to the dramatic changes that occur in infancy and adolescence. While the physical changes are much slower and steadier than in earlier and later stages of growth, the childhood stage is where significant social, cognitive, and emotional growth takes place, and nutrition and diet are important allies to support these changes. Additionally, food and eating patterns adopted now can help to prevent chronic diseases in the future.   

Increased Nutrients Required During Childhood 

  • Protein 
  • Essential fatty acids 
  • Calcium  
  • Phosphate 

Nutrition in Adolescence 

Adolescence is marked by the start and end of puberty and generally occurs between 12 and 21 years of age. This is a period of tremendous physiologic, psychological, and cognitive transformation driven by hormonal changes and societal expectations. Adolescents learn to become more independent, and the role of their peers, in addition to their family, becomes increasingly important. It is expected that adolescence is a period of intrapersonal and interpersonal exploration, and this can cause conflict with caretakers.  

The role of the social circle and social influences are generally very important in this life stage, making adolescents vulnerable to external expectations. Budding ideas of attractiveness, bullying, and disordered eating can be significant issues during this period, which is why healthy environments, influences, relationships with food, and eating habits are all vital topics to integrate into adolescent development. 

Increased Nutrients Required During Adolescence 

  • Energy 
  • Protein 
  • Calcium 
  • Phosphorus 
  • Zinc 
  • Folate 

Boys’ Estimated Energy Requirements From 1-18 years 

Age 
years 

Weight 
kg (lb) 

kcal/d 

1-2e 

11.5 (25.3) 

948 

2-3 

13.5 (29.7) 

1 129 

3-4 

15.7 (34.5) 

1 252 

4-5 

17.7 (38.9) 

1 360 

5-6 

19.7 (43.34) 

1 467 

6-7 

21.7 (47.7) 

1 573 

7-8 

24.0 (52.8) 

1 692 

8-9 

26.7 (58.7) 

1 830 

9-10 

29.7 (65.3) 

1 978 

10-11 

33.3 (73.3) 

2 150 

11-12 

37.5 (82.5) 

2 341 

12-13 

42.3 (93.0) 

2 548 

13-14 

47.8 (105.2) 

2 770 

14-15 

53.8 (118.4) 

2 990 

15-16 

59.5 (130.9) 

3 178 

16-17 

64.4 (141.7) 

3 322 

17-18 

67.8 (149.2) 

3 410 

Source: FAO. Energy Requirements of Children and Adolescents.  

Girls’ Estimated Energy Requirements Based on Weight From 1-18 years 

 

Age 
years 

Weight 
kg (lb) 

kcal/d 

1-2e 

10.8 (23.8) 

865 

2-3 

13.0 (28.6) 

1 047 

3-4 

15.1 (33.2) 

1 156 

4-5 

16.8 (37.0) 

1 241 

5-6 

18.6 (40.9) 

1 330 

6-7 

20.6 (45.3) 

1 428 

7-8 

23.3 (50.6) 

1 554 

8-9 

26.6 (57.2) 

1 698 

9-10 

30.5 (67.1) 

1 854 

10-11 

34.7 (76.3) 

2 006 

11-12 

39.2 (86.2) 

2 149 

12-13 

43.8 (96.4) 

2 276 

13-14 

48.3 (106.26) 

2 379 

14-15 

52.1 (114.6) 

2 449 

15-16 

55.0 (121.0) 

2 491 

16-17 

56.4 (124.1) 

2 503 

17-18 

56.7 (124.7) 

2 503 

Source: FAO. Energy Requirements of Children and Adolescents. 

Nutrition in the Adult Years 

Adulthood is the longest stage of human life. Physiological growth slows and eventually shifts to the maintenance and aging phases. Lifestyle elements, such as physical activity, nutrition, sleep, regular checkups, as well as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs, all influence our body’s ability to longevity and quality of life. Nutrition-related lifestyle goals, specifically, help to promote wellness and reduce risk factors.  

During this period, nutrition professionals have the opportunity to be leaders and effective team members in supporting adults to achieve and maintain positive health. 

Increased Nutrients Required by Men During Adulthood 

Compared to women, men require more of the following nutrients  

  • Vitamin C 
  • Vitamin K 
  • Vitamin B1 
  • Vitamin B2 
  • Vitamin B3
  • Zinc 

Increased Nutrients Required by Women During Adulthood 

Compared to men, women require more of the following nutrients:  

  • Iron 
  • Vitamin B12 
  • Calcium 

Nutrition in the Later Years 

An estimated 13% of the global population is 60 years or older. The percentage of the older population is rising thanks to improvements in healthcare, including advances in technology and treatments and closing gaps in healthcare access.  

Nutrition is an important ally to healthy aging and quality of life. Older adulthood comes with significant physical, emotional, social, and psychological changes that often mark a stark difference from the younger adult years. 

At the same time, elderly people are especially vulnerable to nutritional problems as a result of age-related changes in the body. More specifically, the body’s physiological and anatomical capacity is more likely to begin to deteriorate.  

Some of the possible nutrition-related issues in old age include:  

  • Problems with obtaining and preparing foods 
  • Difficulties swallowing 
  • Psychosocial problems 
  • Digestion problems 
  • Nutrient absorption problems related to impaired function or medication intake 
  • Renal changes 
  • Tooth loss and difficulty chewing  
  • Dry mouth  
  • Memory loss (senile dementia), which may include forgetting to eat and drink  
  • Sensory changes, which impact how food tastes and is experienced 
  • Physical problems like weakness, gouty arthritis, and painful joints 
  • Muscle loss (sarcopenia)  

Changes in Nutrient Requirements in the Later Years 

  • Reduced energy requirements 
  • Increased vitamin D 
  • Reduced iron intake 
  • Selenium 
  • Vitamin B6 

Main Takeaways 

Throughout the life cycle, humans have changing energy and nutrient requirements in response to bodily development, growth, maintenance, and bio-individuality. During each stage, inadequate intake of specific nutrients is a concern, as is the excess consumption of energy, especially in the form of nutrient-poor sources of energy. The excess consumption of refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, and overall energy is linked to accelerated cell aging and chronic disease development. 

As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist or nutrition professional, it is important to be aware of how and why nutritional needs change depending on the stage in the life cycle your client is in.  

At the same time, it is important to be aware that nutrient intake is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to nutritional status and overall health. As we grow and develop, we also experience profound psychosocial changes where food and eating play an important role. Awareness of changing nutrient requirements, together with the complexities of food choice, will allow you to provide stage-specific nutritional guidance. 

 

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