Dietary needs for different life stages

This follows the page about What is a Balanced Diet ?

A general definition of a balanced diet is food intake that not only includes all the dietary needs of the organism (person), but includes the required dietary components, e.g. water, carbohydrates, proteins, dietary fibre, etc., in the correct proportions. That leads to questions about what, exactly, a person's dietary needs are - and, of course, what are the correct proportions. General answers to these questions are usually for a 'normal, healthy adult' assumed to be neither pregnant or lactating, nor elderly.

A healthy diet includes carbohydrates, proteins, fats, dietary fibre, water, vitamins and minerals - but how much of each ?

A person's dietary needs change as he or she passes through the different stages of life from birth to childhood, to adulthood and eventually later life. Dietary needs change in terms of the amount (energy value) and type (nutritional content) of foods required for good health.

An important general principle is that more energy is required to support periods of growth and to fuel active lives - regardless of whether the activity is part of a working lifestyle e.g. agriculture or fishing in harsh environments, pursued for leisure e.g. amateur sports and physical recreation, or is just a healthy aspect of growing-up.

Short notes about dietary requirements at the main human life stages follow below:

Human Life Stages



Newborn babies - first 6 mths

Breast milk is the most natural food for newborn babies and provides a 'total food' for a baby for up to about the first 6 mths of life.

In the first 12 months of life a baby's energy requirement can be up to 3 times (200% greater) than the proportional - to size - needs of an a typical adult. Similarly, a young baby's needs compared with that of an adult are estimated:

  • 3x energy need
  • 3x protein need
  • > 3x need for B vitamins
  • 4x need for vitamins A, C and D and the minerals calcium & iron.


Toddlers & Young Children
(approx 1 - 11 years)

School children grow quickly and are generally very active. Their energy and nutritional requirements are therefore proportionally (by body mass) greater than those of adults.


Puberty & Adolescence
(approx 11 - 19 years)

Young people experience much physical development in the form of growth (increase in size and total mass) and other changes incl. e.g. hormonal during their pre-teen and teenage years. Their nutritional needs therefore differ from those of adults and are also different for male and female adolescents.

  • Energy requirement may be up to 80% higher than when adult
  • Protein requirement may be up to 80% higher than when adult
  • May need more vitamin C than when adult
  • Females may have increased requirement for iron
  • Males may have increased requirement for calcium - for thickening bones



The dietary requirements of a 'normal' or 'average' adult are the most often cited 'typical' human dietary needs. However, there are variations - esp. re. energy requirement - between men and women, depending on body mass, and according to activity levels e.g. due to highly physical occupations or pursuits vs sedentary lifestyles. Overall, an adult's energy requirement may vary by 100% depending on such variables. See also metabolic rate.



Pregnancy changes the proportions in which energy and some nutrients are required. Some changes include:

  • 10% increase in energy requirement
  • 10% increase in protein requirement
  • 100% increase in vitamin C, calcium and folic acid requirements.

However, high doses of some nutritional supplements e.g. certain vitamins are not recommended in pregnancy due to possible effects on the foetus.


Lactation (Breast feeding mothers)

There are additional energy and nutritional requirements when breast feeding, e.g.

  • 20% increase in protein and iron requirements
  • 25% increase in energy requirement
  • 25% increase in requirement for B vitamins
  • 100% increase in requirement for vitamins A and C
  • 150% increase in calcium requirement - so more vitamin D also needed


Later life, elderly people
(60+ years, depending on general health)

Depending on their lifestyle activity level, elderly people may have reduced needs for energy (and associated B vitamins) and protein by 25-30%, or possibly more in the case of very sedentary lifestyles.

Due to their reduced energy requirement elderly people may naturally eat less than when they lead more active lives. If this reduction in quantity of food results in insufficient intake of natural vitamin C in fresh fruits and vegetables, elderly people may benefit from vitamin C supplements. Elderly people and especially elderly women may be found to be at risk of osteoporosis and so benefit from supplementation of calcium and vitamin D.

Dieticians and nutritionists can describe dietary requirements for people according to their life stage or situation, such as:

Dietary needs for different life stages

The following situations are not necessarily stages in life but are situations that give rise to specific dietary considerations:

  • dietary needs for babies
  • dietary needs for infants
  • dietary needs for toddlers
  • dietary needs for children
  • dietary needs for school children
  • dietary needs for teenage girls
  • dietary needs for teenage boys
  • dietary needs for teenagers
  • dietary needs for adults
  • dietary needs for women
  • dietary needs for men
  • dietary needs for pregnant women
  • dietary needs for pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • dietary needs for breastfeeding
  • dietary needs for the elderly
  • dietary needs for old people
  • dietary needs for older people
  • dietary needs for a diabetic (person)
  • dietary needs for coeliacs
  • dietary needs for diabetics
  • dietary needs for diverticulitis
  • dietary needs for hypertension (i.e. a person who has hypertension)
  • dietary needs for lactose intolerance
  • dietary needs for obese people
  • dietary needs for obesity
  • dietary needs for stress
  • dietary needs for specific activities (e.g. dietary needs of swimmers etc.)
  • dietary needs for vegetarians
  • dietary needs for vegans
  • dietary needs for weight loss
  • dietary needs for young athletes

See also carbohydrates, types of sugar, dietary fibre (roughage), fatty acids, fats and proteins.

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