These days, everyone seems to be talking about what they are eating…or not eating. With our increased concern about what goes into our bodies and our children’s bodies, the vitamin and supplement industry has seen tremendous growth over the past several years. It is estimated that over half of preschoolers take a daily multivitamin. The worldwide gummy vitamin industry is expected to be worth over $4 billion by the next decade. Surprisingly, most kids do not need vitamin supplements.
The perception that children need vitamin supplements is often a result of picky eating habits. Parents use vitamins to fill the gaps when kids fail to eat a perfectly balanced diet. The good news is that the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals can be ingested in even small bites of foods. So that spinach hidden within the layers of mom’s famous lasagna supplies a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals including A, K, folate, and iron.
It is also important to note that many food items are enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals. Sometimes this is done because the vitamins or minerals are lost during processing while other times it is done to enhance the nutritional value of the food. Milk has additional vitamin A and D. Many breakfast cereals contain B vitamins and folic acid while calcium is often added to orange juice. I am not advocating that parents reach for processed foods as a source of vitamin supplementation, but when your kids do eat those foods, it is helpful to know that there is some benefit.
Don’t just take my word for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees that most children do not need vitamin supplements. In fact, you can get too much of a good thing. The AAP warns that “megadoses” of vitamins can lead to adverse effects. For example, too much vitamin D can cause vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, weight loss, confusion, and heart rhythm problems.
There are a few situations when vitamin supplementation is important. Newborn infants are routinely given an injection of vitamin K immediately after birth. This is because stored vitamin K in newborns is minimal and this vitamin plays a critical role in the coagulation, or clotting, of blood. Without vitamin K, newborns are at a significantly higher risk of hemorrhagic disease of the newborn, a potentially fatal condition. To date, oral vitamin K at birth has not been as effective as injected vitamin K in preventing this serious complication. Another scenario when vitamin supplementation is recommended is vitamin D for breastfed infants.
There are other times when vitamin or mineral supplementation may be appropriate. Individuals or families who eat a vegetarian or vegan diets may lack adequate intake of B12, calcium, iron, and zinc. People with certain gastrointestinal issues may not absorb some vitamins and minerals adequately. Celiac disease is a good example. At the time of diagnosis, many patients have multiple vitamin deficiencies as well as weight loss due to poor calorie absorption. Once patients are treated with a gluten-free diet, their vitamin and calorie absorption improve. However, a gluten-free diet is often deficient in vitamins D, B12, folate, iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. Children with multiple food allergies could also experience vitamin or mineral deficiencies. If your child or family eats a restrictive diet based on personal preference or a medical condition, speak with your doctor or a registered dietician regarding your specific supplementation needs.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, children and adolescents are most likely to have poor dietary intake of calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E. Check out choosemyplate.gov with your kids to find foods rich in these nutrients and other ideas for eating a balanced and healthy diet.
Finally, remember that many vitamins are stored so it is not necessary to eat every one of them every day. Additionally, vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet. Enjoy trying new foods with your kids and even when they don’t take more than a couple of bites, they are probably getting more than you think.