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Importance of Carbohydrates for Optimal Infant Growth
By - Danone nutricia academy

Good nutrition is essential for rapid growth and brain development that occurs during an infant’s first year of life. During infancy, nutrient requirements per kg of body weight are proportionally higher than at any other time in the life cycle. Positive and supportive feeding attitudes and techniques demonstrated by the parent or care giver help infants develop a healthy attitude towards food.1

Role of carbohydrates in growth and development of Indian infants:

The primary source of carbohydrates to the brain is glucose. The main role of dietary carbohydrate is to provide energy to the body, in particular to the brain, which needs glucose to function. Carbohydrates provide the bulk of calories with 40-55% of daily needs. While carbohydrates are utilized as disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides, lactose forms the primary enteral source of glucose in human milk.3

Role of carbohydrates in growth and development1:

  1. Supply energy for growth, body functions, and activity.
  2. Building new tissue.
  3. Allow for the normal use of fats in the body.
  4. Providing the building blocks for some essential body compounds.
  5. Fuelling the brain and nervous system.

Types of carbohydrates – Carbohydrate quality:

Carbohydrates can be classified as sugars, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (see Table 1). Digestible dietary carbohydrates comprise two main categories—starch and sugars.
In young infants, digestible carbohydrate is obtained from breast milk mainly in the form of lactose. Breast milk also contains carbohydrate in the form of oligosaccharides, which are not absorbed in the small intestine, and enter the large intestine, where they stimulate the growth of bacterial types such as bifidobacteria, resulting in potential beneficial effects on the colon and on immune responses and reduced susceptibility to infection.4

Table 1: Classification of the major dietary carbohydrates

Class Subgroup Examples
Sugars Monosaccharaides
Glucose, galactose, fructose
Sucrose, lactose, trehalose
Sorbitol, mannitol
Oligosaccharides Malto-oligosaccharides
Other oligosaccharides
Raffinose, stachyose, fruto-oligosaccharides, galacto-oligosaccharides
Polysaccharides Starch
Non-starch polysaccharides
Resistant starch, amylose, amylopectin, modified starches Cellulose, hemicellulose, pectins, hydrocolloids

Dietary fiber which is also a type of indigestible carbohydrate is found in all plant materials. It is essential for proper gut function and regular bowel motions.

Importance of lactose in infants

Lactose is an important energy source in fully breast-fed human infants, it constitutes around 40% of the total daily energy intake. Lactose may manifest several health benefits in young children, including a prebiotic effect on the gut microbiota and a positive effect on mineral absorption. Lactose forms the primary enteral source of glucose in human milk.5

Role of dietary fiber for growth and development:

Dietary fiber has pivotal health benefits in childhood, especially in assisting normal laxation. Studies suggest that it may be useful in preventing and treating obesity and also in lowering blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk of future cardiovascular disease. As complementary foods are introduced to the diet; fiber intake increases. It has been recommended that for infants 6-12 months of age, whole grains and cereals, fruits, cooked green leafy vegetables and legumes gradually can be introduced to provide 5 grams of fiber per day by 1 year of age. 1

Why simple sugars should be avoided in infancy?

The Committee of Experts from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has proposed that total carbohydrates should provide between 45% and 60% of the total energy intake and <10% of the total energy intake from sugars for all age groups, except for children under the age of two years.7 Sugars or Sugar-containing beverages increase the risk for overweight/obesity and dental caries. They can result in poor nutrient supply and reduced diversity in diet and may be associated with increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular risk, and other health conditions later in life. 8

Dietary carbohydrates are the main source of energy during the early years of life and meeting their requirement is most important for this critical period of growth and development. Along with quantity type of carbohydrate must also be considered to prevent health disorders in the future.

  1. Infant nutrition and feeding: A guide for use in the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (2019). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and nutrition service, FNS – 826.
  2. Ministry of Health 2008. Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers (Aged 0–2): A background paper - Partially revised December 2012. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
  3. Patel JK., Rouster AS., (2021). Infant Nutrition Requirements and Options. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  4. Stephen A., et al., (2012). The role and requirements of digestible dietary carbohydrates in infants and toddlers. Eur J Clin Nutr, 66(7):76 5-79.
  5. Benedikte Grenov., et al., (2016). Undernourished Children and Milk Lactose. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 37(1) 85-99.
  6. Williams C (2006).Dietary Fiber in Childhood. Journal of Pediatrics; 149(5): S121-S130.
  7. EFSA sets European dietary reference values for nutrient intakes (2010). Eurpoean food safety authority.
  8. Fidler Mis, N., Braegger, C., Bronsky, J., Campoy, C., Domellöf, M., Embleton, N. D., Hojsak, I., Hulst, J., Indrio, F., Lapillonne, A., Mihatsch, W., Molgaard, C., Vora, R., Fewtrell, M., & ESPGHAN Committee on Nutrition: (2017). Sugar in Infants, Children and Adolescents: A Position Paper of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 65(6), 681–696.

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