A Dietitian Explains What “Nutrition” Is to a 6-Year-Old

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

In Explain It Like I’m 6, a dietician answers the burning health questions from Associate Food Editor Meghan Splawn‘s daughter, Ella.

Ella is 6 1/2 years old (the half is important) and she just started first grade last week in Boise, Idaho. When she’s not helping her mom out in the kitchen, you’ll most likely find her playing with her American Girl doll. Ella is a curious kid, and regularly asks her parents insightful questions. Here’s how a recent conversation played out when Meghan asked Ella if she had any questions about eating healthfully.

Meghan: Ella, we’re going to interview a dietitian and nutritionist about eating healthy. Do you have any questions for her? She’s a mom too.

Ella: What is nutrition?

Great first question! It’s a basic question I’m sure most adults would have trouble answering. We asked dietitian Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition to answer to the best of her abilities, and here’s what she had to say.

(Image credit: Sally Kuzemchak )

Sally Kuzemchak is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods for Kids and the founder of RealMomNutrition.com, a no-judgments zone about feeding a family. We asked Sally to answer five of Ella’s questions about health and wellness in the easiest way possible.

What Nutrition Is

Nutrition starts with chewing, finishes at the other end, and involves a whole lot of stuff in between. It’s how your body breaks down and uses the food you eat and how what you eat (and drink) affects your health.

All foods and drinks are made up things called nutrients, and there are six of them.

  • Protein
  • Carbs
  • Fat
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water

Foods don’t just have one of those nutrients — they’re a combination of them. For instance, meat has a lot of protein in it but it also has fat, minerals like iron, vitamins, and even some water.

Nutrients’ Jobs

When we eat, those nutrients are released from food and go off to do certain jobs in the body. Some jobs have to do with the everyday nuts and bolts of keeping the body running. Others are more complicated, affecting our health in little ways that add up over many years.

For instance, the protein in meat is released and builds muscles, bone, and even skin for the body. Carbs give you instant energy to keep going (and save energy for later when you’re not eating). Vitamins and minerals have a bunch of special tasks like protecting you from getting sick and strengthening bones so they don’t break easily. Some vitamins help keep the body safe from the kind of harm that can cause diseases later on.

When you eat more foods that are full of nutrients (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains like brown rice, and fish), it means your body’s got those jobs covered and can keep humming along nicely. Having balanced nutrition means you’re getting the kinds of foods you need in the right amounts for your body.

But when a lot of what you eat are foods that are either pretty low in nutrients (like chips, cookies, and candy) or high in nutrients like the mineral sodium (salt) that the body doesn’t need in large amounts, the body can’t get those jobs done the right way (or they don’t get done at all). That’s why poor nutrition can make you tired and cranky. You might get sick more often or not heal as quickly.

The Ever-Changing Nature of Nutrition

Nutrition can seem confusing because it’s a science — and sciences are always changing, because the amount of what we know keeps growing. Researchers figure out new connections, and old ideas get replaced. That makes it interesting for people like me who work in nutrition, but I know that also makes it frustrating for the average person trying to decide whether to have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast!

Thanks so much, Sally!