Nutrition is an important aspect of health at all stages of life, from infancy to old age.
Our nutritional needs change over time, with certain age groups or life stages requiring more or less of certain nutrients.
Some life stages, like childhood and pregnancy, have higher nutrient needs to support growth and development.
Knowing which nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to focus on at each life stage can support wellness as we age.
Many things naturally change as we get older, like the appearance of our skin and hair, our appetite, and our personal sense of style - just think about how you may have dressed as a teenager compared to now. Another thing that changes over time is our body’s nutritional needs.
Depending on what stage of development or season of life we’re in, we may require more or less of certain nutrients. It’s important to honor these needs in order to best support healthy aging and overall wellness. After all, how we’re eating now plays a role in how our health outcomes play out over time.
So you may be wondering, how do nutritional needs change over time? Well, it’s helpful to first understand how getting older affects your nutrient needs. Then we can talk about the best ways to make sure you’re meeting those needs.
It’s interesting to think about how many changes our bodies go through as we pass through various stages of life. Not only do we look different as we age (wiser and more mature), but we also can experience changes like thinner skin and hair and decreased muscle mass.
But that doesn’t mean we should wait to focus on supporting our body with nutrition until our later years. In fact, nutrition in early life sets the stage for our long-term wellness. Though their bodies are small, infants and children have high nutrient needs to support proper growth, development, and weight gain.
Other life stages have different nutritional requirements. Teenagers have unique nutritional needs as they enter puberty. Pregnant and lactating women need to be able to adequately nourish both themselves and their babies. Elderly individuals may experience a reduced appetite and mild memory problems associated with aging that poses new challenges to getting adequate nutrition.
Nutrition is a long game. In other words, meeting your nutrient needs isn’t just something to pay attention to during one season of life. Prioritizing nutrition now, through your diet and certain supplements, plays a significant role in your health outcomes as you continue to age.†
Nutritional Needs by Age
Infants and Toddlers
Nutrition is critical in early childhood. Infants and toddlers have the highest nutrient requirements per kilogram of body weight to support rapid growth and development. In fact, during the first year of life, a child’s weight triples and their height can increase by 50%. Furthermore, babies and toddlers are learning how to honor their hunger and fullness cues, form their taste palates, and begin feeding themselves.
Infants should receive their nutrition solely from breast milk and/or infant formula for the first 4-6 months. Then, a variety of solids can start to make up a larger part of their diet, making sure to have a reliable source of Vitamin D.
Babies need a high percentage (around 30-40%) of calories from healthy fats. The Omega-3 Fatty Acid DHA accumulates in the brain through the second year of life, so it’s important for young children to have a source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in their diet, first from breast milk or formula fortified with DHA, and once solids are introduced, from foods that supply Omega-3.
As we move from infancy and toddlerhood into childhood, calorie needs adjust to accommodate growing bodies and increased activity levels. However, as kids become more exposed to ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages, the risk of consuming empty calories increases. Presenting a variety of healthy foods at home remains important.
One of the ways that parents and caregivers can help fill in nutritional gaps is by adding supplements. A multivitamin like Kids First® Multivitamin + Omega-3 Gummies can help kids get the nutritional support their growing body needs, and it comes with 30 mg of EPA and DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids per serving. Additionally, Kids First® Fiber Gummies can be helpful for picky eaters who may not be eating many fruits and vegetables. An immune health support supplement like Vitamin C may also be beneficial.†
Teens and Young Adults
Peak bone density occurs around age 20, so the teen years are the ideal time to invest in bone health. Nutrients like Calcium, Vitamin K, Magnesium, and Vitamin D are especially critical leading up to and throughout the teen and young adult stages.†
Additionally, it’s during this stage of life when girls typically start their menstrual cycle. Therefore, it’s important to consider the increased Iron needs of adolescent females through diet and potentially a supplement as teen girls ages 14-18 should consume 15 mg of Iron per day.
Teenage males have higher needs for certain nutrients, such as Zinc, Chromium, Magnesium, Choline, Manganese, and Vitamins C, B1 (Thiamin), and B2 (Riboflavin). Data show that many American teens fall short in meeting their daily requirements for Calcium, Iron, Zinc, and Vitamin D.
As adolescents turn into young adults, this is the time when all of the lessons that parents and caregivers have instilled about healthy eating start to be reflected through personal choices. It’s important to continue striving to eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients to support overall wellness.
Throughout the adult years of ages 19-50, nutrient needs are dependent on factors such as activity level, health status, and other significant life events, such as pregnancy. will require additional calories, protein, fat, and various micronutrients like Folate, DHA, Calcium, and Iron. Furthermore, a supplement that supports stress management or sleep may be helpful as adults juggle working, caregiving, and other responsibilities that can take a toll on health.
It’s also important for adults to ensure that they’re getting enough Vitamin D, as factors like age, sex, race, location, diet, and time spent outdoors all influence how much is actually obtained. Surveys have found that Vitamin A, C, E, D, and Zinc intakes are often lacking among adults in the United States.
As women go through menopause, additional Iron supplementation will likely no longer be needed but this is under the discretion of the healthcare provider.
Some individuals start to experience a reduced appetite, and reduced mobility as they enter their golden years. This can make it more difficult to meet daily nutrition and fluid needs.
Women have increased Calcium and Vitamin D needs to support bone and muscle health. Additionally, the absorption of some nutrients, like Vitamin B12 declines as we get older.
Now that you have an idea of how nutrient needs change over time, the next question to answer is how to make sure you’re meeting them. Keep in mind that everyone is different. Our nutrition needs are influenced by unique personal factors.
As long as you’re getting enough total calories in your diet, it’s rare to be lacking in protein.  Still, if you need ideas for adding more protein to your diet, try these:
Black, navy, pinto, kidney, or garbanzo beans
Dairy products, such as low-fat milk or Greek yogurt
Soy foods, like tofu, edamame, tempeh, and soy milk
Nuts, like cashew, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios
Seeds, like chia, flax, hemp, and sunflower
Another way you can easily boost your protein intake is with protein powders. Add a scoop to pancake or waffle batter, homemade energy balls, smoothies, or protein shakes. This can be a great option when appetite is low or nutrient needs are otherwise not being met. Look for protein powders with minimal ingredients and without extra added sugars.
When it comes to conversations about nutrition today, the focus may sometimes fall more on calories than nutrients. However, understanding ways to increase your intake of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and Omega-3 fats, as well as antioxidants is more beneficial to your health than counting calories.
Below are some vital nutrients and where you can find them in your diet:
Antioxidants: berries, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, kale, red cabbage
Surveys have found that only an estimated 5% of adults are actually meeting the minimum recommended daily amount of fiber, which is approximately 30 grams per day.
Fiber comes from plants. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds to boost your fiber intake. For example, one slice of 100% whole wheat bread can provide 4-6 grams of fiber. You’ll find 3.5 grams in 1 cup of raw blueberries and 2 grams in 7 walnuts.
Alternatively, you might prefer individual nutrient supplements. Depending on what your diet pattern looks like, adding a Vitamin B12, Iron, Zinc, or Omega-3 supplement may make sense Your healthcare provider might recommend a Vitamin D supplement like Nature Made Vitamin D3 2000 IU (50 Mcg) Softgels, depending on your blood levels. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before adding a new supplement to your daily routine.†
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Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She also enjoys writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics. Find her at www.laurenpanoff.com.
Kalyn is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and a Science & Health Educator with the Medical and Scientific Communications team at Pharmavite. Her experience in the field of nutrition prior to joining Pharmavite has included community and public health education, media dietetics, and clinical practice in the areas of disordered eating, diabetes, women’s health, and general wellness. Kalyn received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona, and completed her dietetic supervised practice in Maricopa County, AZ, with an emphasis on public health. Kalyn is certified in Integrative and Functional Nutrition through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, where she is an active member in addition to memberships in Dietitians in Functional Medicine, Women’s Health Dietitians, and the International Federation of Eating Disorder Dietitians.