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Your nutritional needs are never constant. They change with the dynamic phases of your life cycles. From infancy through puberty, you grow rapidly; then in adulthood your growth slow downs and declines with age. This is obvious. Everyone knows that a baby needs milk while older children and adults need "regular" foods. Yet few people give serious thought to how their nutritional needs change with each stage in life.
We need to also consider the process of ageing. Cell ageing is called "senescence", which is related to words like "senile" "senior" and even "senator" They all derive from the Latin word sen, meaning "old". You can slow down your senescence with optimal nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
Having studied this subject deeply, I can tell you that there are no shortcuts to slowing down the ageing process. You need to make conscious efforts to improve your diet and lifestyle.
Before we consider how we might adjust our food intake to meet our needs at different stages of our lives, it is important to understand the three key factors of eating for good health: right amount, right balance and right nutrients. These concepts form the basis of healthy eating regardless of age, special events like pregnancy, or state of health.
You need food for growth and to support your daily activities. But no more. If you eat more than what you need, you will have to store the excess and this leads to obesity. The right amount depends on several factors. You need more calories during your growth phase, during pregnancy and when you are physically active. You need less if you are less active and advanced in age.
In the past, some people did not get enough nutrients because of food shortages, or because they lived in areas where the soil was poor. Today, these are no longer serious issues except in poor countries struck by famine.
Even in affluent countries today, however, many people eat processed and refined foods that have lost a lot of nutrients. For example, carbohydrates need B vitamins for assimilation but many refined carbohydrates have the bulk of their B vitamins removed. This causes a nutritional imbalance.
Another problem arises because many nutrients play opposing roles. A good example involves omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 promotes inflammation while omega-3 curbs inflammation. In the modern diet, many people take far too much omega-6 fats and too little omega-3 fats. This imbalance causes chronic inflammation, which is linked to eczema, asthma and many other diseases.
Every aspects of your body chemistry must be balanced and we have discussed some of these in the previous chapter. Balance is the key.
Without the right nutrients, your body systems will not run efficiently. Although you may not be unwell, you may not experience full vitality and optimal health either. In each phase of your life, you may need special nutrients to fulfil the needs of that phase. For instance, your brain needs smart fats and cholesterol to develop fully during the first 1,000 days of life.
This window period is critical for you to develop a smart brain that stays alert and function properly. You may not be able to restore its full potential after this window of opportunity has passed.
We now take a look at how our nutrition changes at different phases of our lives. Although calories and nutrients are required throughout life, the emphasis varies at different stages. It also varies with the activities that we engage in.
Our lives might be divided into several phases:
Early growth phase, from birth till about three years, is marked by rapid physical growth, yet the mental development that occurs during this phase is even more significant. "Smart fats" and other foods that nourish the brain - including phospholipids, essential omega-3 fatty acids and cholesterol - are especially important during this phase. Protein is also needed to support physical growth.
Later growth phase, from childhood till early adulthood is marked more by physical development, although the brain continues to develop. Protein is more important now but good quality fats continue to be important. As a person approaches adulthood, he or she also needs to prepare for reproduction and the diet should emphasise cholesterol-rich foods.
Consolidation occurs during adulthood. The body stops growing and both the amount and quality of foods depends very much on the person's lifestyle. Those who are physically active can afford to eat more, including more glucose from carbohydrates. It is also better to eat more and be physically active than to eat less and be inactive. In adulthood, a pregnant woman should also emphasise foods that are suitable for her foetus and for breastfeeding her infant.
Decline takes place in old age. During this phase, a person naturally eats less. However, the aged in modern societies may need food supplements to make up for the body's declining ability to assimilate or synthesise certain nutrients.
This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.