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.
Signs and symptoms of a poor diet
Symptoms of poor diet can include:
- being underweight, overweight or obese
- constipation or changes in bowel habits
- being pale or lethargic
- tooth decay
- poor physical growth.
In some children, poor diet may be associated with:
- behavioural problems
- sleep issues
- problems with emotional and psychological
- poor concentration or difficulties at school.
What causes nutrient deficiency?
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:
Not enough fruits and vegetables
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.
- Aim for 5 serves of grains (e.g. brown bread,
pasta and rice), 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day. Read
more on number
of serves here.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables are best, but canned
(in natural juice, drained) or frozen varieties are also good options and
generally contain the same amount of nutrients as fresh. Dried fruit is
nutritious, but has a high amount of natural sugar so should be eaten less
Allergies and intolerances
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.
- Lactose intolerance can lead to a decreased
calcium intake – make sure your child has an alternative (e.g. lactose-free
cow’s milk or yoghurt or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives).
- Coeliac disease can lead to inadequate intake of
fibre and increases the risk of iron deficiency due to gut inflammation – make
sure your child has adequate iron-rich foods in their diet, such as red meat
and leafy green vegetables.
- Restriction of FODMAP containing foods can
result in inadequate consumption of fibre and other important nutrients.
Independent food choices and restricted diets
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.
- If your child has decided to restrict certain
food groups, or has decided to follow a special diet, speak to a GP and
dietitian about implementing a balanced diet that meets nutritional needs.
- Following a diet that isn’t planned or
supervised by a health professional could lead to poor health.
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.
Poor food choices
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.
- Reduce the number of treats offered to children
and teenagers and provide healthy alternatives for snacks.
- Avoid using treats as rewards – using treats for
behavioural or emotional reasons does not support the development of healthy
Care at home
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.
- Involve your child in planning meals, food
purchasing and preparation – these improve your child’s understanding of
healthy eating and their food choices.
- Reduce the number of treats available and
provide healthy alternatives for snacking.
- Avoid buying or offering sugary drinks – water
is the best drink for children.
- Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in
your child’s diet.
- If your child has special dietary requirements
or needs to avoid particular food groups, ensure they eat appropriate foods to
replace the nutrients they miss out on.
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 many names for fat (e.g. oils,
shortening, milk solids, monoglycerides) and sugar (e.g. sucrose, glucose,
dextrose, syrups, malt).
- Ingredients are listed in descending order (i.e.
a product contains the most of the first ingredient and the least of the last
- Use the ‘Per 100g’ values listed in the
nutrition information panel to compare products.
- The fewer ingredients listed, the better.
There are resources and apps that can help understand
labelling. Try Eat
for Health or the FoodSwitch app.
When to see a doctor
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:
- is avoiding food groups or restricting their
- has allergies or food intolerances
- has an unbalanced diet and you are concerned
about nutritional deficiencies
- is underweight or overweight.
Key points to remember
- A nutrient-rich diet is important for healthy
growth and development.
- Generally, most vitamin deficiencies can be
managed at home with minor changes to diet.
- You should take your child to see your GP if you
are unsure about their weight or diet or if you are concerned they may have an
allergy to particular foods.
For more information