If you walk the aisles of your local pharmacy, you’ll see bottle after bottle of multivitamins marketed specifically for kids. That has a tendency to give the impression they are commonly needed, but the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is that a healthy child who is eating a well-balanced diet does not need to take vitamins — with the exception of vitamin D for infants and children. Instead, the risk with giving a healthy child a multivitamin is that mega-doses of vitamins, such as vitamins A, C and D, can be toxic, causing symptoms like nausea, rashes, and headaches.
“I’m a big believer in trying to get as many of your nutrients as possible through foods,” said Mary Campagnolo, a practicing family doctor in Bordentown, N.J., and spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians. “There are all sorts of factors that we don’t understand yet that we gain from eating whole foods.”
If you feel your child may need a multivitamin, either due to their diet or other reasons, the first step is to talk with your paediatrician. “It can be really important to know what supplements people are taking,” Campagnolo said. “Sometimes there are interactions [with medications you are taking] or it could lead to more anticoagulation, which could be detrimental in a surgery.”
What does a healthy, balanced diet for children look like?
Prioritising a healthy diet from an early age is a good way to establish lifelong healthy habits. To help parents, the American Academy of Family Doctors has put together a guide for how children can get the vitamins and minerals they need through food. The priority should be feeding them fruits, vegetables, lean sources of proteins, legumes, nuts, and low-fat dairy.
As Campagnolo points out, one of the food groups that offers a wide range of necessary vitamins and minerals are legumes. “Beans are an overlooked food,” Campagnolo said. This includes lentils, which are easy to cook, as well as various types of beans, such as kidney, pinto, black, lima, and great northern.
It’s also really important to keep an eye on sodium levels, as well as processed sugar, as these can cause a number of health issues. “These are two big areas we don’t pay as much attention to as we should,” Campagnolo said.
Although kids can be picky eaters, starting these habits now will help lay the foundation for lifetime of healthy eating habits. “For children, it is important they learn good habits from their parents,” Campagnolo said.
A restrictive diet may necessitate multivitamins
If you have a toddler who is going through an exceptionally picky phase, giving them a multivitamin for a few months may be something to consider, after talking about it with your paediatrician. “Keep trying as best as you can to give them variations,” Campagnolo said. “I know it’s tough.”
In terms of other restrictive diets, vegan and vegetarian families need to be mindful of their diet to ensure they are getting enough of the necessary vitamins and minerals. If they aren’t, it’s a good idea to either add in a multivitamin or fortified milks and cereals.
The same is also true if a child has a food allergy or intolerance, such as to dairy, as that will mean needing to keep an especially sharp eye on their calcium and vitamin D intake. One food-based alternative to making sure they are getting enough would be to give them fortified cereals or alt-milks. Check the labels, though, to make sure these have been added in.
If your child develops an issue that affects their digestion, that’s another time when you should talk to your paediatrician about whether a multivitamin is needed.
Families facing hurdles accessing healthy foods may also need a multivitamin
Another exception would if your family is facing hurdles when it comes to getting enough healthy foods. Although there are certainly resources to help families get enough healthy foods to eat, whether it’s a community organisation or a government aid program, the grim reality is that nearly 14 million children in the U.S. are not getting enough to eat.
Doctors are being taught to screen more for possible food insecurity so they can help, but there are still a number of systemic issues when it comes to families accessing healthy food. “Our priority is to help people be healthy,” Campagnolo said, which includes trying to identify additional social factors that may be impacting a patient’s health.
In addition to the large number of kids in this country who aren’t getting enough to eat, there are also families living in food deserts, where it’s harder to access affordable, healthy foods, and still more families who may not have the time or kitchen space to cook regularly.
A multivitamin certainly won’t fix the systemic issues and is not a replacement for healthy foods, but it can help stave off some of the deficiencies. As Campagnolo rightfully points out: “We’ve got to look bigger than that.”
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