By Dr Martie Conradie, MBChB (UP), Diploma in Child Health (SA)
I have asked this question and no doubt many of you have too.
The easy answer would have been to say: “No, a child’s intake of vitamins is more than enough through his or her diet alone.” Nowadays, this is unfortunately not the only answer anymore due to several reasons of which the most important is probably that our children’s diets are no longer very healthy and many children can benefit immensely from getting a multivitamin.
Justifying the need of a vitamin supplement
In general kids that eat a healthy, balanced diet do not need vitamin supplements but there are several factors to consider when deciding whether your kids fall into this category of “kids with a healthy, balanced diet”. I try my best, but often days are rushed and getting my kids to choose veggies over a slice of bread is really, really difficult and before I know it, they have snacked on nutrient-poor foods until they had no more space for anything proper. Not to mention the relatively unhealthy breakfast cereals which are just so quick to prepare in the mornings – at least they are often fortified with some vitamins and minerals.
My honest opinion is that every parent should prioritise their child’s mealtimes and ensure it is filled with nutrient-rich foods. Sweets and unhealthy snacks should be cut out as far as possible. If you do this, it will not only solve the problem of kids struggling to get their daily requirements of vitamins in, but it will also have an amazing effect on your child’s development and ability to focus.
But, since our current way of life will probably not change and our kids are exposed to many unhealthy foods, kids can only benefit from a multivitamin.
When kids have a bigger need?
Infants have different nutrient needs than older children and may require supplements such as vitamin D if they are breastfed. Older babies, especially if they are breastfed, may also benefit from iron supplementation, but this should be discussed with a paediatrician.
Other kids who will benefit most from an additional multivitamin are the following:
- Kids who do not eat well-balanced meals that contain fresh and healthy foods, regularly.
- Picky eaters who just do not eat enough.
- Kids with chronic medical conditions, such as digestive problems, asthma, or HIV – but in these cases it is important to consult with a doctor about which multivitamin or supplement to choose.
- Kids who eat a lot of processed or fast foods.
- Kids who follow specific diets, such as a dairy-free diet (may need calcium supplementation) or a vegetarian diet (may need additional iron).
- And a very important one: kids who drink a lot of carbonated cooldrinks, because this can lead to vitamins and minerals actually being leached from their bodies.
- Kids with mental health problems or conditions such as autism, which often lead to being picky about food or a reduced appetite.
Top vitamins and minerals for kids
Kids need to be healthy for the body to focus energy on all areas of development.
Multivitamins are a combination of some, or all of the ones discussed below but each of these play a role in vital functions in the body.
Vitamin A: this vitamin promotes normal growth and development as well as healthy eyes and skin. Good food sources include milk, cheese, eggs, and carrots. Important to note is that vitamin A is fat-soluble and therefore it can be stored in the body and can lead to serious health effects if there is an overdose, so if it is given as a supplement, it should be used as prescribed only.
Vitamin Bs: these include a range of vitamins aiding metabolism, the nervous system, energy production and blood circulation. Good food sources include fish, nuts, beans, meat, chicken, and milk.
Vitamin C: this vitamin is well-known for its antioxidant properties and benefits include promoting healing. It can also reduce the time it takes to recover after viral infections such as the common cold. Good food sources include berries, citrus fruit, kiwi, tomatoes, and broccoli. The amazing thing about this vitamin is that there is always a seasonal fruit that contains enough of it to supply our daily needs, however, taking this as a supplement may also be beneficial.
Calcium and vitamin D: they work closely together. Both are vital to bone growth, especially in children. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. Food sources of calcium include milk, cheese, and yoghurt.
Iron: iron is essential to healthy red blood cell formation and building muscles. Iron deficiency is a risk in breastfed babies after about 6 months and adolescent girls who start to menstruate. Good food sources include red meats, spinach, and prunes.
Zinc: it is crucial for brain development in early life and also promotes healing membranes, such as the throat after viral infections or the gut after an episode of gastro.
Research is being done to see if there is a benefit of supplementing with healthy omega acids in children with conditions such as ADHD or just to assist with concentration in general and there are many other supplements on the market. If you have a look at the shelves in a pharmacy, it is overwhelming when trying to decide what is best to use from all the different products available. For these “specialised” types of supplements, it is advised that you discuss it with a paediatrician, because the decision should be made based on an individual child’s needs and it should not just be promoted for use in all children.
Notes of caution
Taking vitamins should preferably not be a bad experience for children and not all multivitamins or supplements taste great. Teach your children the value of taking multivitamins and why they are needed. Try to also find a multivitamin they like to take.
Try not calling the vitamins “sweets” as smaller children could one day get hold of a whole bottle of gummies and finish them. In this case, call the doctor or a poison centre immediately and tell them what type of vitamins they were. Vitamin A, D, E or K (fat-soluble vitamins) may be dangerous in overdose.
Gummy vitamins and other preparations may contain sugar, therefore, these should not be given just before bedtime. Since gummies could potentially stick to teeth, dental care is important to prevent caries from developing.
Vitamins are vital to your child’s development; a supplement could ensure a little body has enough, especially if you are concerned about your child’s diet. However, never let supplements substitute a healthy diet where possible. May you be able to offer your children what their bodies need, whether through a healthy diet or a little help from a multivitamin.