13 min read
NUTRITION FOR GIRLS: FROM BIRTH TO ADULTHOOD
Our nutritional needs vary according to which stage of life we are in; from birth to adulthood, changes in growth and development, puberty, increasing activity, learning, and some health conditions can all raise the requirement for certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat). If your child has a health condition affecting their nutritional needs, her pediatrician can refer you to a registered dietitian for more specific advice.
At this age, baby girls should be getting all the nutrients they need from breastmilk and/or formula. Animal and plant-based milks are not a suitable source of nutrition for infants; if a cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) is suspected in a formula-fed child, soy or hydrolyzed formulas are available.
Though some doctors and pediatricians may advise that you can begin solid foods between four and six months, most dietitians recommend that you wait until at least six months, unless there is a medical need. The signs that your baby is ready to start solids include:
- She can sit unsupported.
- She shows an interest in the food you eat.
- She has lost the tongue-thrust reflex.
Ensure you have read about safe feeding practices and know the difference between gagging and choking to give you more confidence when starting to feed your baby solid foods.
6 months – 3 years
This is a period of rapid growth and development when requirements for both micronutrients and macronutrients are higher, on a per kilogram of bodyweight basis, than at any other time of life.1 Compared to adults, children up to the age of three need more total energy (i.e. calories), protein, and unsaturated fat per kilogram of bodyweight; they also have a higher need for water due to sweating less, and this need is increased further in times of fever, diarrhea, or extreme heat.2 After six months, babies have an increased need for iron, which is often not adequately met by formula or breastmilk. Serve an iron-rich food (strips of meat, mashed beans, and lentils or seeds, like chia and hemp) with each meal to ensure she has plenty of opportunities to up her iron intake.
Good sources of protein and unsaturated fat for babies and toddlers include eggs (for young babies, serve scrambled or boiled and mashed on strips of toast—toddlers often find it fun to dip toast strips into a soft boiled egg), chia seeds (encourage your toddler to get involved by sprinkling the seeds on her food by herself!), oily fish like salmon, homemade hummus, and pesto (increase omega-3 fats in hummus and pesto by replacing some of the olive oil with flaxseed or walnut oil).
Offering a varied diet, encouraging your children to eat intuitively, not forcing them to eat when they're full, or restricting food when you think they’ve eaten too much should ensure that children meet their nutritional needs and set them up for a healthy relationship with food in later life. This is a particular concern in girls for whom eating disorders and dieting are a continual problem.
3 years – puberty
This is a period of slower growth between the high growth periods of infancy/toddlerhood and puberty. For girls, puberty usually starts between about 9 and 11 years, but can happen earlier or later—this is just an average. Genetics, race, and diet can all affect the timing of puberty in girls, with diets high in processed, high-fat (predominately trans and saturated fats) foods associated with an earlier onset of puberty. Conversely, underfeeding and malnutrition are associated with delayed onset of puberty.2
Feeding a balanced and varied diet will support girls’ growth and development. Remember that a balanced diet does not mean that no processed foods or treats should be allowed! Moderation is key to setting our children up with the tools that will enable them to live a life free of restrictive food rules, in addition to modelling balance in food choices. Picky eating, common in toddlerhood, should begin to ease with children more open to trying new foods; for those in whom pickiness continues, a nutritional shake like Kids Good Stuff Multivitamin Drink by Nuzest—which contains a full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional factors—can be added to their diet to fill gaps in nutrition.
Puberty and adolescence
This is the second highest growth period of childhood, and as such, nutritional needs are increased to meet the demands of this growth spurt. While it is commonly understood that boys need to eat more during puberty and adolescence, the same is true of girls. While boys often need more total energy than girls, this is only because boys generally having larger frames and higher muscle mass; the energy needed per pound of body weight is the same for both genders. During this time, girls should be strongly encouraged to eat to fullness, without restricting calories or food groups, in order to ensure adequate nutrition to support growth. This is particularly important for girls who are athletic, participate in organized sports, or practice dance or gymnastics, for whom nutritional needs are higher, but there is often greater pressure to maintain a smaller size.
Though protein needs are higher during puberty, the body has an increased efficiency for utilization of dietary protein,2 so while you should continue to ensure that your child is regularly offered protein as part of meals and snacks via meat, eggs, tofu, beans, lentils, fish, or protein shakes like Clean Lean Protein by Nuzest (these are great for a quick snack after sports!), it’s not necessary to overthink it.
A more common deficiency in Western diets is iron. While severe deficiency that causes anemia is less common, a subclinical (i.e. causing few or no obvious symptoms) lack of iron is not unusual, especially among girls who have a heavy menstrual period. Many of the protein sources noted above are also high in iron, with green leafy vegetables, (like spinach and broccoli), seeds (like chia and hemp), and nuts (like cashews) being other great additions to boost iron intake. Serve iron with a source of vitamin C, (like citrus, kiwis, and capsicums), and separate from tea and coffee to enhance absorption.
There is also an increased need for calcium, zinc, and folate.2 Calcium can be found in dairy products and fortified dairy alternatives, green leafy vegetables (like kale and broccoli, but not spinach, which is low in calcium compared with other green vegetables), along with edamame beans. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish (especially oysters), chickpeas, and other beans, as well as nuts and seeds. Beans and lentils, green vegetables (especially dark green like spinach and kale, though asparagus is also a good source), eggs, and beetroot are good sources of folate.
Late adolescence and early adulthood
Girls usually stop growing in height around 14 or 15 years old, though weight is likely to continue to increase before stabilizing at an appropriate adult weight for her height. During late adolescence, a woman’s nutritional needs are approximately the same as they will be for the remainder of her early adulthood, until reaching menopause.
Key nutrients to focus on are iron and folate, for the same reasons they are important in early adolescence. Total energy needs may decrease depending on the level of activity. For many, high school includes a significantly higher amount of physical activity than is continued into adulthood, when work may include long periods of sedentary behavior.
To mitigate the risk of osteoporosis (a disease overwhelmingly affecting women, who account for 80% of cases) post-menopause, it’s important to maintain bone mineral density throughout adulthood. This can be achieved through regular resistance training and ensuring adequate intake of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K. Vitamin D is made by our skin from sunlight (be sure to follow safe sun practices!), but is also found in fatty fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms. Vitamin K is found in highest amounts in dark green vegetables, (like kale, spinach, and chard), but is also in brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts), meat, kiwi, avocado, and cheese. Sources of calcium can be found in the section above.
By the age of 14, girls should have graduated from Kids Good Stuff Multivitamin Drink to our adult formula, Good Green Vitality Bars to meet their daily nutritional needs. Good Green Vitality Bars contain enough vitamin C, vegan vitamin D3, vitamin K, zinc, folate, and calcium to meet or exceed their RDI, along with a whole host of other vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to support health.
It might seem overwhelming to think about all the nutrients that your girl needs at different stages of life and development, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. By following healthy eating guidelines, including a rainbow of fruits and veggies each week, offering morning and afternoon tea as well as at regular meal times, and placing some trust in them to eat to fullness, it should not be difficult for them to get everything their bodies need. If you have concerns, you could speak to your child's healthcare practitioner for more information.
Talking to your children about health: Do's and Dont's
- DO make any discussion age-appropriate and easy to understand.
- DO encourage children to be involved in food decisions from a young age, e.g. helping to pick veggies at the supermarket or asking older children for input on meal planning.
- DO encourage intuitive eating in your child, rather than focusing on a specific number of calories or grams of fat and carbohydrates.
- DO encourage daily movement in a way they enjoy.
- DON’T pressure children to eat foods they don’t like—offer it regularly and make sure they see you eating it too.
- DON’T talk to your child about her weight, especially in a negative way!
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Nutrition guide for clinicians. Retrieved from https://nutritionguide.pcrm.org/nutritionguide/view/Nutrition_Guide_for_Clinicians/1342043/all/Nutritional_Requirements_throughout_the_Life_Cycle
- Soliman A, De Sanctis V, Elalaily R. Nutrition and pubertal development. Indian J Endocrinol Metab 2014;18(Suppl 1):S39-S47.