Nutrition in the life cycle – what you need to know

Nutrition in the life cycle – what you need to know

In this article, I will be showing you how to ensure adequate nutrition for yourself and your family at every phase of the life cycle. Growth and development continue throughout life, i.e. from the womb phase to infancy and to the very old age. Nutrition need for every stage is very different and nutrient intake at a given time will not only meet the need for that stage but lays the foundation for the next stage and the future. Follow me and enrich your understanding of nutrition in the life cycle to optimize your well-being and that of your family.

Nutrition in the life cycle begins in the womb phase

Nutrition in the life cycle
Womb Phase

In some part of the world, it was incorrectly believed that the baby in the womb receives adequate nourishment from the mother, whether the mother is well-nourished or not. Increasing evidence shows that good nutrition before and during pregnancy produces healthy babies and mothers. The mother’s nutrition before and during pregnancy is very important because it sets the stage for the healthy growth and development of the child. Poor maternal nutrition can as well set the course for chronic disease in the adult life of the child. As a woman, ever before you fall pregnant, ensure that your state of nutrition is good because the outcome of your pregnancy largely depends on your nutrition. During pregnancy, there is rapid growth and development of a fertilized egg into a fully developed infant in approximately 40 weeks.

Throughout the pregnancy period, your needs for most of the basic nutrients will increase tremendously. It is important that you have sufficient energy supply to meet increased energy need and to spare protein for tissue building. Insufficient energy intake during pregnancy can lead to babies with brain or spinal cord defects. It can also result in babies too small at birth. You can meet your energy needs during pregnancy through a balanced intake of starchy foods and legumes. Ensure a generous intake of fruits and vegetables as well as a variety of foods to meet the need for minerals and vitamins. For optimal nutrition during pregnancy, note the following:

  • You need sufficient energy supply to meet increased energy need and to spare protein for tissue building.
  • You need to increase your intake of protein in order to meet the need of the rapidly growing baby. Adequate intake of protein-rich foods such as milk, lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs and beans will supply your protein need.
  • You as well need an adequate supply of fatty acid for proper development of fetal cell membranes and brain tissue. Essential fatty acids can be supplied with olive oil, soy oil, canola oil, nuts like walnuts and peanuts, and oily fish like mackerel and salmon.

Minerals and vitamins of great importance in pregnancy include iron, calcium, iodine, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B complex and vitamin C. An adequate supply of these minerals is necessary for the prevention of anaemia and preterm delivery, bones formation, prevention of abnormal growth, poor cognitive development and congenital malformation.

Infants and Young Child (1 to 2 years)

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants should be breastfed within one hour of life, and be exclusively breastfed for six months. After six months, infants should be introduced to adequate, safe and properly fed complementary foods while continuing breastfeeding for up to two years of age. Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months has many benefits for you as a mother and for your child. Breastfeeding your baby will reduce the risk of death due to diarrhoea and other infections. Breast milk is an important source of energy and nutrients in children aged 6 to 24 months.

Research evidence shows that children and adolescents that were breastfed perform better in intelligence tests. Breastfeeding also contributes to your health as a mother because it reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. After six months, breast milk only will no longer be enough to meet the nutrition needs of your baby. Therefore, start to add semisolid family foods to the diet of your baby in addition to breastfeeding. The transition from exclusive breastfeeding to family food is referred to as complementary feeding. It typically covers the period from 6 to 24 months of age. Start by giving semisolid foods 2-3 times a day when the baby is between 6-8 months. Increase to 3-4 times daily when your baby is between 9-11 months and at 12-24 months with additional nutritious snacks given about 1-2 times per day or as desired.

Preschool Age (2 – 5 years)

Children in the ages between two and five are actively growing; therefore, they need adequate energy and a wide variety of nutrients to support growth and development. Growing children need an adequate supply of calcium for healthy bones and teeth and proteins for tissue development and growth. At this age the stomach is small; children can only tolerate small meals at frequent intervals.

Ensure your child’s food comprise a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables. Give in-between meals in the form of healthy snacks which will not only provide additional calorie but also proteins and minerals and vitamins. It is common to see children at this stage preferring fruits to vegetables. Meanwhile, vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals needed for growth. Therefore, make an effort to deliciously prepare vegetables such as mashed butternut, cooked carrots, and introduce to your child in small quantities at a time. Since preschool children love picking their foods with fingers, raw or softly cooked vegetables cut into small pieces to be picked up and eaten are usually well tolerated. Give good quality protein found in milk, egg, meat and beans to meet your child’s need for protein for proper growth and development. Give a wide variety of starchy foods such as bread, rice, yam, potatoes and cereals all of which are good sources of energy.

School-age (6 – 12 years)

The school-age stage is just before adolescence and is referred to as the latent time of growth. During this stage, the rate of growth slows down a bit and body changes occur gradually. Nevertheless, food resources are being laid down for the rapid adolescent period that is to follow. As a result of the slow rate of growth, there is a moderate need for food requirement. Nutrition needs at this stage centre on protein for growth along with minerals and vitamins. Though energy needs are modest, your child should have a good quality diet from a variety of foods to provide essential minerals and vitamins essential for maintenance, metabolism, physical activity and school performance.

Good nutrition in the life cycle continues with the adolescence phase (12 – 21 years)

Adolescence is characterized by the beginning of puberty and the occurrence of the final growth spurt of childhood. Adolescent growth explains the wide differences in physical size, metabolic rate and food needs. The rapid growth is accompanied by increased demand for energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. It is important that adolescents receive their energy supply from staple foods that will as well provide minerals and vitamins. Adolescents’ need for protein increases to support puberty and tissue development. The large appetite characteristic of this rapid period leads adolescents to satisfy their hunger with unhealthy snacks high in fat and sugar but low in proteins, minerals and vitamins. Instead, snacks should be healthy choices. In order to ensure good nutrition at this stage, ensure your adolescent child meet the following:

  • An adequate intake of foods rich in proteins such as meats, fish, eggs and beans to meet the requirements for rapid growth.
  • Adequate intake of calcium necessary for laying the foundation for strong bone and prevent the risk of bone diseases in the adult years.
  • Adequate intake of iron for laying a good foundation for the healthy menstrual cycle and prevent iron deficiency anaemia.
  • Adequate intake of folic acid for laying a good foundation for healthy pregnancy outcomes in the few years ahead.

Adequate intake of vitamins especially vitamin B complex which is needed for extra demands of energy metabolism and tissue development.

Young Adult Phase (21 to 40 years)

Nutrient needs remain important even after physical growth and maturation are completed. The growth patterns that emerge in adolescence are strengthened in the adult body. The nutritional concerns for the young adult include energy, calcium, iron and vitamins. The energy requirement for active young men is about 3000kcal/day and for active young women is 2400kcal/day. Please note that these values are relevant to a very active individual. Therefore, an individual with a sedentary lifestyle will require less kcal/day. Protein intake of 0.8g/kg body weight is considered enough for body maintenance and replacement of worn tissues. The mineral and vitamin need of a young adult can be met by well-planned meals sourced from a variety of foods. The need for calcium, iron and potassium is particularly important. As a young adult, you need to ensure the following:

  • Adequate intake of calcium (1000mg/day) for the development and maintenance of strong bone to continue which will prevent degeneration of bone mass in later years.
  • Adequate intake of iron in order to meet the need for increased physical activities (for young men), and to offset losses through menses (for women of childbearing age).
  • Adequate intake of potassium to control the blood pressure. Adequate intake of fruits and vegetables can ensure an adequate supply of potassium in the diets.

Adequate intake of folic acid in order to build the body stores for this vitamin before conception.

Middle Adult Phase (40 – 65 years)

As people move into the age of 40 and above, cell replication slows down with a gradual loss of body cells and tissues. The need for certain nutrients changes in the middle adult years and intake has a critical implication on health and well-being. At this stage, your calorie requirement will decrease due to loss of active tissue and more so with a sedentary lifestyle. You need to adjust your energy intake to correspond with your level of activity. Otherwise, excess energy will increase your body fat leading to larger waist circumference, overweight and obesity.

Vitamins and minerals requirement at this phase is very important. To make the most benefits of vitamins and minerals at this state, you will want to note the following:

  • Adequate intake of calcium particularly for women. From age 51 years, the recommended intake for calcium increases from 1000mg/day to 1200mg/day and this is necessary to preserve bone mass. Menopause may bring about a decrease in calcium absorption due to loss of estrogen. This situation can reduce bone density leading to increased risk of bone fracture.
  • The need for vitamin D increases for people older than the age of 50 years to ensure adequate absorption of calcium.
  • With cessation of menstruation, the iron needs for women drops from 18mg/day to 8mg/day.

The recommendation for sodium intake falls from 1500mg/day to 1300mg/day in order to maintain the normal water balance of the body and prevent high blood pressure.

Older Adults (65 to 86 years)

The later adult years come with a gradual weakening of physical vigor, work capacity and strength. At this stage of life, calorie need decreases as a result of a reduced physical activity which is also accompanied by reduced food intake. The need for protein for an older adult in the good state of health remains the same as a healthy younger adult. This is necessary for maintenance and prevention of age-related muscle loss. The need for calcium increases to replenish loss in bone mass. As a result of reduced food intake, non-food calcium intake (supplements) may be necessary to protect against bone fracture and osteoporosis. Help the older adults to benefit from the gains of a healthy lifestyle by choosing his/her foods from a wide variety of sources which include plenty of vegetables and fruits.

Nutrition in the life cycle with the Oldest Old (85 years and older)

As adults continue to age, nutrient absorption and use are less efficient. Energy needs are reduced because of reduced physical activity and metabolism. However, ensure the older old have a well-balanced diet prepared with different foods in the amounts that can be tolerated. The diet should also contain plenty of vegetables and fruits. The older old who is in good condition of health should have adequate calcium (supplements if needed) intake to protect against bone mass loss. It is also necessary to reduce salt intake to protect against blood pressure.


Good nutrition in the life cycle is very important, with every life’s phase providing the foundation for the phase that follows. I hope this article has deepened your understanding of nutrition in the life cycle. I counsel that you maintain a healthy lifestyle through healthy eating and physical activity to experience optimal nutritional well-being and productivity. Unhealthy eating behaviours at any stage of the life cycle can accelerate physiological changes leading to ill-health such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, bone diseases, and obesity.

Please note that a general nutrition recommendation does not apply in every situation. If there is a disease condition, consult a dietitian, and good nutrition will help to minimize the severity of the disease.

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