A question I often get from parents is whether or not their child should be taking supplements. While vitamins and minerals are vital to the growth and development of children, it is best to get these nutrients from actual foods verses supplements. The reason for this is because vitamins and minerals from foods are more bioavailable, meaning our bodies absorb them better in a natural form within whole foods as compared to the artificial form in supplements. In general, children who eat balanced diets do not need a vitamin or mineral supplement. A balanced diet consists of fruits and vegetables, dairy or dairy alternatives, whole grains, and lean protein foods such as poultry (chicken or turkey), fish, eggs, nuts, and legumes (bean and lentils).
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the majority of children are deficient in iron and calcium. Iron is best absorbed from meat sources such as beef, pork, and turkey, but substantial amounts can also be obtained from plant sources like beans and spinach. Iron plays a role in muscle development and is needed to carry oxygen through red blood cells. Signs that your child may be iron-deficient include a lack of energy, nervousness, and increased infections. Calcium is important for bone health. It is found in milk, sardines and fortified plant-based beverages and some orange juices. Smaller amounts can also be found in broccoli and spinach. A lack of calcium can lead to poor growth and osteoporosis later in life.
Other vitamins of importance are vitamin D, vitamin A and the B vitamins, such as B12. Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium and the development of bones and teeth. Daily sun exposure for as little as 5 minutes a day can help increase Vitamin D levels because it is one of the minerals that is produced in the body. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified dairy and dairy alternatives, egg yolks, and fish oils. Excessive milk intake (more than 32 oz/day) is not recommended since higher calcium levels may interfere with iron absorption in the body, leading to iron-deficiency anemia. Vitamin A is important for normal growth and promotes healthy skin and eyes, immunity, and tissue and bone repair. Good sources include yellow and orange vegetables, as well as milk, cheese, and eggs. B vitamins help with metabolism and energy and are found in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, as well as nuts, beans, and soybeans.
However, there are certain circumstances where supplementation is needed and encouraged. For example, children who follow vegetarian or vegan diets may need to supplement with vitamin B12 since it is only found in animal-based foods. Also, children who have celiac disease are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies and may need supplements. Additionally, children who have a poor appetite, drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages, take certain medications, or have chronic medical conditions that interfere with intake, may need a supplement.
It is best to consult a healthcare provider before giving your child a supplement if you are unsure because many supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the overconsumption of certain vitamins can be toxic and lead to symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and diarrhea. Any supplements at home should be kept out of the reach of young children.
Written by Victoria Luera, Lone Star Circle of Care Registered Dietitian. Submitted by Ashley Wild.