Does your child really need vitamin supplements?

Do you insist that your children take a daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement? New research suggests they may not need it. A study by UC Davis researchers published in the February 2009 issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine indicates that most of the healthy children and teenagers in the United States who are taking daily vitamin and mineral supplements probably don’t need them. However, the study also found that the children who most need to take vitamins aren’t getting them. Well-known New York pediatrician Dr Anatoly Belilovsky gives his advice on whether or not your children need supplements.

Mother giving child vitamin

Not all children eat well

Even though the UC Davis study indicates that many children are well-nourished, the truth is there are many other children who fall short on their recommended vitamin and mineral intake. This is particularly true with more families struggling financially and experiencing hardship in providing nutritious meals or purchasing vitamin supplements. Because diets vary so much from family to family, children can suffer a wide range of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Dr Belilovsky points out vitamin D and iron deficiencies as examples.

Vitamin D deficiency in children

Dr Belilovsky, whose practice, Belilovsky Pediatrics, is considered an Americhoice Center of Excellence in pediatric care, says 24 percent of adolescents are deficient in vitamin D, a much needed nutrient to ward off rickets in children and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in adults. A recent rise in vitamin D deficiency and rickets in children in the US even prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue new vitamin D requirements for infants, children and adolescents, raising the recommended daily dose from 200 IU to 400 IU. Though exposure to sun helps the body make its own vitamin D, experts still recommend a supplement. (More on the new vitamin D requirements)

Iron deficiency in children

According to Dr Belilovsky, 10 to 30 percent of US toddlers are deficient in iron. Further, according to a survey by the USDA, 60 percent of children 5 years and younger, 60 percent of females 6 to 11 years old, and only 28 percent of females 12 to 19 years old consume 100 percent or more of the recommended daily allowance for iron.Iron is the most abundant mineral in the body with most of it in hemoglobin and myoglobin, the red cell proteins that help transport oxygen to muscles and tissues. An iron deficiency can lead to weakness, fatigue and a condition better known as anemia. For toddlers, a deficiency can lead to serious cognition problems. A study in the medical journal Paediatric Drugs indicates that iron deficiency in toddlers is associated with impaired mental and psychomotor development that is potentially irreversible. However, since iron can be toxic in large doses, talk to your doctor about your child’s dietary iron intake and proper supplementation.

Dangers of not consuming adequate vitamins and minerals

A chronic deficiency in any nutrient can lead to health problems in children as well as adults. Dr Belilovsky says, for example, “Lack of iron can cause a sufficient delay in cognitive functions. Not enough zinc can cause dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) and weakened immunity. Vitamin D deficiencies can cause obesity, weakened immunity and weakened bones.”Children with poor diets can also be under their ideal weight if they aren’t consuming adequate calories. They can also be overweight or even obese when their caloric intake is much too high and they are sedentary. Keep in mind that even overweight children, despite the high intake of food, can still be malnourished. If their food choices lack food groups, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains, they are most likely not consuming the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals.

Quick tips to keep your children well-nourished

A healthy, balanced diet is essential for every one of your family members to meet the recommended daily intake of nutrients. If the economy has put a pinch on your food budget or you just aren’t sure where to start, you can still improve your family’s nutrition with just a few small changes. Dr Belilovsky recommends the Three P’s: plan, protein and produce.1. Planning: Go to the supermarket with a list of ingredients for a variety of well-balanced meals that will result in leftovers you can eat the next day or two. If you don’t have a plan, you end up spending more money than necessary. Leftovers give you a convenient way to save time (you don’t have to cook an entire meal from start to finish) and stretch your food dollars.2. Protein: Lean protein is filling and can be easy on the wallet. For example, buy a whole chicken and cut it up rather than pay more for boneless, skinless cuts. If you have some left over, you can make healthy chicken, bean and cheese quesadillas the next night. Opt for a roast instead of individual cuts of meat and serve it with in-season vegetables and whole grains, like rice or pasta, which are usually cheaper per serving than meat and provide complex carbohydrates and fiber.3. Produce: In addition to buying seasonal fruits and vegetables (which are usually more economical), stick with the C’s: cabbage, carrots and collard greens. All are high in antioxidants, available year round and affordably priced. For those who can’t get through their fresh produce before it goes bad, buy frozen. It’s cheaper and just as healthy.In addition to these quick tips, you can also visit the interactive website to learn more about dietary guidelines and improving your family’s diet.

Give your children a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement

Though there are children who consume healthy diets and may get a good amount of vitamins and minerals through food, Dr Belilovsky says studies have shown that many kids are deficient in at least one type of nutrient, regardless of socioeconomic status.He suggests, “It’s always a good idea to round out children’s vitamin intake with supplements. It’s best to choose a type they will actually enjoy and make it a daily habit; the ‘gummy’ variety with different flavors is always a hit.”

However, don’t rely on supplements

Children who take supplements still need a healthy, balanced diet as well as daily physical activity to ensure their overall health. Dr Belilovsky warns that there is a risk relying on supplements because vitamins are not substantial nor do they provide digestible proteins, carbs, fats or fiber that provide real energy. He adds, “Vitamins also cannot substitute for aerobic activity that provides cardiovascular strength and weight control.”Bottom line: You can best ensure your children’s health by providing them with an adequate diet and giving them a children’s multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.

More on vitamins and minerals for your children

How important is vitamin C in your child’s diet?
What you need to know about vitamin A
Mother nurture: Good nutrition