Vitamin A is essential for good vision, a strong immune system, bone growth and tissue repair. Jessica Lehmann — a registered dietitian, nutritionist and faculty member in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University — suggests roasting some butternut squash, steaming some broccoli or chopping up a mango to give your kids a vitamin A boost. Vitamin A is also found in meat, poultry and eggs.
B vitamins are key for the growth and development of the body as well as for the daily activity of many bodily functions. They help to turn food into energy and may even reduce the risk of cancer. B vitamins are water-soluble, so they need to be replenished on a daily basis. You'll find B vitamins in vegetables, fruits, beans, meat, poultry, fish, grains, bread, pasta and cereals.
Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an immunity-boosting, water-soluble vitamin that is necessary to form collagen in bones, cartilage, muscle and blood vessels. It also helps the body to absorb iron. It may also help to decrease the risk of developing asthma, and it acts as an antioxidant to decrease inflammation and prevent cell damage. Vitamin C is also water-soluble and does not get stored, so we need to eat vegetables and fruits every day to provide a steady supply of vitamin C to our cells. Citrus fruits are a well-known source of this vitamin, but healthy doses are also available in broccoli, bell peppers, strawberries, pineapple and melons.
"Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth," says Lehmann, "and it's also necessary for healthy nerve transmission and muscle contraction."
Women also need more calcium to help prevent osteoporosis. Besides kid-friendly favorites like milk, yogurt and cheese, calcium can be found in the dark, leafy greens like spinach and collard greens. Calcium is also added to many fortified breakfast cereals, fruit juices, soy products and rice milk.
Without this vitamin, your body cannot absorb calcium. In addition, your immune system needs vitamin D to fight off viruses and bacteria. Also, recent research suggests that vitamin D may help to prevent allergies and juvenile diabetes. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, but many (like milk and cereals) are fortified with it. Mushrooms provide some vitamin D, but salmon, tuna and mackerel are all better sources. Also, the body makes vitamin D when skin is directly exposed to the sun. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are vitamin D–deficient. Symptoms of a deficiency may include muscle pain, low energy or fatigue.
Iron is required for the development of strong muscles and for the production of blood, and it's important for your child's growth. The World Health Organization considers iron deficiency to be the No. 1 nutritional disorder in the world. In fact, almost 80 percent of the world's population may be iron-deficient. Typically, the absorption of iron from meat, chicken and fish is higher than from other sources, though it can be found in foods that are fortified with the mineral, such as cereals, bread, rice and pasta. Lehmann says eating or drinking vitamin C–rich food or beverages also helps our bodies absorb iron from our food.
"For example, eating strawberries or drinking orange juice would increase the absorption of iron from cereal at breakfast," she says.
While we should all aim for a varied diet that's rich in plant foods, protein, healthy fats and energy-rich carbohydrates, Lehmann says there's really no such thing as a perfect diet.
Lehmann adds, "Our bodies are designed to absorb vitamins and minerals best from foods and beverages — the natural approach is the best!"
But since busy schedules, picky kids and birthday-party pizza overload all come into play, Lehmann says she would definitely recommend a daily multivitamin/multimineral supplement as "insurance."
Jessica Lehmann, M.S., RDN, is a nationally recognized nutritionist, wellness consultant and registered dietitian who is passionate about balanced, healthy eating. Click here to read about her approach to nutrition.
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