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Understanding Food: Macronutrients

Food has calories, and while adults may wish them away, calories and nutrients are essential to your child’s health. But where do calories come from? Macronutrients — known as protein, fat, and carbohydrate — are the “big three” nutrients that supply energy and important nutrition for your child’s growth and development.

These macronutrients are included in the Dietary Reference Intakes, along with many other vitamins and minerals that comprise a healthy diet.

Macronutrients at a glance:

Protein is found in foods like meat, beans, eggs, dairy, soy and nuts. It is also found in breast milk and infant formula. Protein has four calories per gram and is involved in building new tissue and repairing damaged ones. Because young children are experiencing rapid growth, protein is an important component of their diet. Infants meet their protein needs through breast milk or infant formula. Toddlers meet their needs from a broader range of foods, including meat, beans, cheese, milk or milk alternative, egg, nuts, and nut butters. Compared to adults, the daily requirement for infants and young children is small because their body is smaller. More is not better in the case of protein—pushing too much can damage the kidneys and cause dehydration.

Fat makes up a large part of the infant diet, up to 50 percent of calorie needs! As babies age into toddlers and preschoolers, fat requirements decline to about 30-40 percent of calories. It’s easy to meet fat recommendations in the first year, as breast milk and infant formula incorporate the right amount of fat. As a vital part of the diet, fat is involved in brain growth and is a concentrated energy source (nine calories per gram). This high-calorie nutrient helps babies, toddlers and preschoolers meet their daily calorie goals without filling up on too much food. The toddler whose diet is highly concentrated in grains, fruits and vegetables but low in fat may grow poorly. Great sources of fat for the emerging eater are avocado, plant oils such as olive, sunflower and safflower, whole milk (up to age two), cheeses, full fat yogurt, and nut butters (after two years old).

Carbohydrate is found in nearly all foods, including fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. Carbohydrate is the preferred energy source for working muscles, the brain and nervous system. There are many forms of carbohydrate such as refined sugar, fructose (sugar naturally found in fruit), lactose (sugar naturally found in milk) and complex carbohydrate, such as fiber, found in grains, beans, vegetables and fruit. A low carbohydrate diet could interfere with childhood growth and development. Carbohydrate weighs in at four calories per gram, similar to protein.

A diet representing all the macronutrients is exactly what young children need to grow well, enjoy food and eating, and develop normally. Don’t make the mistake of skipping out on fat in an effort to be “healthy” or trying a special diet, such as gluten-free or low carbohydrate, as these are not healthy for the growing body or brain of a young child. Consult your pediatrician or dietitian before significant changes are made to your child’s diet.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, December 2018


  • Castle and Jacobsen
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • 2013

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