“Should I give my child a multi vitamin?” This is one of the most common questions I get asked from moms. It’s often at a well child visit, wanting to know how to improve picky eating or also it comes up at sick visits when a child gets numerous colds and coughs and parents like you may feel their child is sick “all the time” and want to know how to “boost their immune systems” to prevent them from missing school.
As a pediatrician, kids health and well being is of utmost importance to me. Why? Not only do I want to keep children safe and care for them if they get common childhood conditions like ear infections, strep throat, eczema, and broken bones but I also want to teach parents (and kids) what they can do to control their health now and to drastically improve wellness as they got older by preventing obesity, diabetes, heart disease and so much more. A big portion of this is by instilling habits of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices.
Are vitamins a quick fix for most healthy kids? The short answers is no. If your child is eating a variety of foods and is not on a restricted diet, then extra vitamin supplementation is not needed. Can they hurt? A one a day multi vitamin for extra insurance won’t do harm (except the expense) but mega dosing on vitamins particularly fats soluble vitamins like ADEK that can build up in the body can cause toxicity. So more is definitely not always better. In addition, giving a vitamin supplement is not an assurance or a pass for your child to then eat unhealthy processed snacks and fast food. The biggest issues and concerns with the average kid’s diet is NOT the lack of vitamins (as even sugary cereals are fortified with vitamins) but that a typical western diet is low in fiber, fruits and vegetables and high in added sugar and unhealthy fats.
That said, here are 3 nutrients to know about that are often lacking and could use a boost in many children’s diet.
Iron – This is one of the most common deficiencies in kids of all ages particularly preemies, breast fed babies, toddlers who drink a lot of milk, growing teens and girls who menstruate. Low iron can affect neurological development. It can lead to iron deficiency anemia (a low blood hemoglobin level) this can cause a child to be pale, low energy, tired, headache and fatigue. There are many sources of foods rich in iron. Heme iron is a great source which is found in meats, turkey, chicken, liver, eggs and fish. There is also non-heme iron that’s is plant based in foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, and dried fruits. Here’s an important tip, non heme iron will be absorbed better if eaten at the same time as some vitamin C. So serve together beans with sliced tomatoes, or even broccoli and bell peppers to dip in hummus.
Vitamin D - This is a fat soluble vitamin that is needed for bone growth and development and to prevent a disease called Rickets. You may be aware that the body can make vitamin D, however sunlight is needed so depending on where you live, the amount of sun exposure, the season and even how much sunscreen your child wears they probably still need to ingest some sources of Vitamin D. Breastfed babies need additional Vitamin D as it is not as readily absorbed from breastmilk If you have questions or concerns speak with your pediatrician. For older children food sources of vitamin D include fish such as salmon, beef, liver and eggs as well as fortified foods such as many dairy products including milk and yogurt , non-dairy milk (soy, almond) and many cereals are fortified too.
Calcium – This is a mineral also important for strong bones and teeth as well as for functioning of muscles heart and the nervous system. Dairy products (cheese, yogurt and milk) as well as non-dairy milks are very good sources of calcium. Tip- when serving fortified nondairy milks, make sure to shake well as the calcium needs to be dispersed throughout before pouring otherwise it settles at the bottom of the container. Other no dairy sources include seafood, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, legumes, almonds and dried fruit. Lastly many cereals and breads are fortified with calcium as well.
Looking at your child’s overall diet for the week rather than just each day may be a better way to assess what they are eating and the nutrient value. A food diary for a week often can help clarify and you may be pleasantly surprised that with added nutritious snacks, your child may be meeting their nutritional requirements. Reach out to your pediatrician if you still have concerns about your child’s overall diet. They can evaluate and determine with you if added supplementation is needed.