In this section
All children and adolescents need healthy snacks and meals
to support their growth and development.
A nutrient-rich diet plays an important role in your child’s mental and
Unfortunately, nutritional deficiencies can occur in children
when their diets include an excess of foods that are high in fat, sugar and
salt. These are often in the form of treats (chips, chocolates, lollies, soft
drink) or in food that has been processed (such as take-away food). Children
who don’t eat a varied diet that includes enough fresh and whole foods risk
long-term health consequences.
A healthy diet with the right nutrition also plays a vital
role in maintaining a healthy weight in children and adolescents. Eating
patterns established in childhood continue into adulthood, so the more healthy
choices children are offered, the better.
Symptoms of poor diet can include:
In some children, poor diet may be associated with:
deficiencies may occur in children who do not eat a balanced diet, which often
results in inadequate intake of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some common
problems that affect a healthy diet in children and adolescents include:
Fibre keeps the digestive and immune systems healthy. A lack
of whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains in the diet can mean children
and adolescents don’t get enough fibre. Low-fibre diets can cause constipation,
and put children at greater risk of developing bowel cancers and heart disease
later in life. Having adequate amounts of fibre in the diet can be protective
against excess weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of Vitamin C,
which is needed by the body to assist with iron absorption, fighting infection
and wound healing.
Choosing a variety of different coloured whole fruits and
vegetables (yellow, red and green) and including these as part of your child’s
normal diet can help prevent problems associated with nutrient deficiencies.
Children or adolescents who have been diagnosed with food
allergy or intolerances should have their diet modified or supervised by a
dietitian to ensure they get the nutrients required for healthy growth and
Allergies to particular foods or food intolerances (e.g.
lactose or gluten) can result in a limited diet and nutrient deficiencies if
changes are not managed safely.
As children get older and become more independent they may
decide to follow particular diets or restrict certain food groups. There are many
diets that adolescents may find appealing, and it is common for older children
to experiment with ‘fad’ diets. Unnecessarily restricting particular food
groups may result in nutrient deficiencies which can be detrimental to health
as your child may be missing vital nutrients for growth and development (e.g.
going gluten-free when it’s not needed, low-carb diets).
Adolescents who restrict their intake of animal products
(meat and dairy) are particularly at risk of iron and calcium deficiency,
especially if choosing to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. Iron is needed for
transporting oxygen to the body, and lack of iron often presents as a lack of
energy. Including foods that contain iron in the diet to prevent iron
deficiency is important for both physical health and brain development.
Calcium is required for healthy bone growth, particularly
during adolescent growth spurts. Inadequate intake of calcium in adolescence
can lead to osteoporosis or weak bones in adulthood.
adolescents who are underweight or overweight can be nutritionally deficient as
their diet usually lacks healthy nutrient-containing foods.
are many factors that contribute to a child’s weight (e.g. genetics) it is heavily influenced by their
food choices. Common dietary contributors to excess weight gain include
junk foods, sugary drinks, large portions and processed takeaway foods.
Overweight children do not naturally ‘slim down’ or lose weight as they get
older: they require healthy eating habits in conjunction with exercise to reach
a healthy weight.
Treats and processed foods (chips, chocolates, lollies, cakes,
biscuits and take-away food) should be limited to special occasions and be
consumed in moderation in accordance with the Australian
Guide to Healthy Eating.
Sugary drinks (soft drinks, juice,
flavoured waters, cordials and sports drinks or energy drinks) are not required,
even following sport, and should be avoided. Water is the healthiest choice and
should be the main drink for all children over 12 months.
Treats, processed foods and sugary drinks are
often filled with sugar or artificial sweeteners, fat or salt and add no
nutrition or benefit to a child’s diet. Too many serves of these foods
and drinks are linked to poor health, weight gain and tooth decay.
Generally, most vitamin deficiencies can be managed at home
with minor changes to diet. Making healthy food choices and knowing how many
serves your child needs for their age can be helpful. See more at the Australian
Guide to Healthy Eating.
Reading food labels is the best way to know how healthy a
product is. Always look for the fat and sugar values as these will guide you in
making good choices.
There are resources and apps that can help understand
labelling. Try Eat
for Health or the FoodSwitch app.
You should take your child to see your GP if you are unsure
about your child’s general health, weight or diet. Your GP will be able to
refer you to a dietitian for additional support to ensure your child has a
You should also see your GP if your child or adolescent:
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.