Healthy kids take vitamins

All parents want their children to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Nutritious food is vital to maintaining optimal growth and development.

Mothers who breastfeed ensure their baby receives enough at each feeding. When solid foods are introduced, parents read labels and choose products that are all natural or organic. Eventually, more variety is added as children experiment with selections from the five food groups. Children who enjoy trying new healthy foods, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, lean meats and fish benefit from the many vitamins and minerals they contain. Those who refuse to sample foreign cuisine and limit their diet to fistfuls of Cheerios or Mac-n-Cheese may not take in as many nutrients as the more daring, but are they in danger of becoming undernourished?

The vitamin industry would like parents to believe they are in danger. It knows how important vitamins and minerals are to satisfy the nutritional needs of children’s growing bodies. It also understands that changes in eating patterns, including the rejection of wholesome foods, are common throughout childhood and adolescence. Companies that promote vitamins and minerals target worried parents looking for a magic pill to make up for the missing nutrients in their children’s diets. According to a report in the October 2007 issue of “Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine,” one-third of American children between the ages of 2 and 18 take a daily dietary supplement even though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend them for children, especially under 12 years old.

The Academy advocates a diet based on the Food Guide Pyramid as the best source of nutrition for healthy children, but also recognizes special situations where vitamins may be necessary. Children who are exclusively breastfed or suffer from eating disorders often need supplements. Dietary supplements are vital to support children with liver disease or other chronic medical problems. Parents with concerns about deficiencies should always consult a health care provider before selecting a vitamin for their child. Pediatricians can screen individual children and determine whether or not supplements are needed and in what dosage. Too many yummy-gummy vitamins that claim good health may not only prove ineffective but harmful. An accidental overdose of vitamin and mineral supplements can cause adverse effects in chidlren, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, liver abnormalities and nerve problems.

If a dietary supplement is recommended, parents must be careful of their selection. Many kid-friendly products are advertised without having been tested. Unlike medications, dietary supplements are not held to any set of federal standards to ensure purity and quality. Some companies claim their products help to treat specific childhood disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). A safe, natural alternative to prescription drugs appeals to parents who wish to avoid the side effects of medication. Replacing a proven effective drug like Ritalin with a natural dietary supplement may cause more damage than good. Natural does not necessarily mean safe. Parents must be cautious of any product claiming to be a scientific breakthrough or a miracle pill. Promoters may succeed in luring innocent parents to buy their fraudulent cure-alls by bombarding them with medical terms that cannot be supported by scientific evidence or undocumented success stories.

Dr. William Sears, a pediatric practitioner for over 30 years, recommends a multivitamin containing the following ingredients: omega-3 fats, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins C and E. Vitamin D is also important, especially for children who do not drink milk or have limited exposure to sunlight. Surprisingly, most over-the-counter multivitamin-mineral supplements do not contain this combination of essential vitamins and minerals!

Why are these vitamins important?

• Omega-3 fats are beneficial to brain development and nervous system function (tuna, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, canola and flax oils)

• Calcium is necessary for the development of strong, healthy bones (milk, cheese and yogurt)

• Iron contributes to the development of strong muscles and the production of blood (meats, poultry, fish, leafy greens, legumes, iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice and cereals)

• Zinc is an important mineral, especially for adolescents, because it helps with growth and sexual maturation (shellfish, wheat germ, wheat bran, All Bran cereal, pine and pecan nuts)

• Vitamin C can support a healthy immune system and connective tissue (fresh fruits and veggies, especially oranges, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and sweet red peppers)

• Vitamin D is crucial in building strong bones and maintaining the immune system (milk, salmon, tuna, cheese and egg yolks)

• Vitamin E assists with maintaining a healthy immune system (asparagus, avocado, egg, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils and whole grains)

In 2002, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that children and adolescents who were more active, ate a healthier diet and had better access to health care were more likely to take multi-vitamins and minerals. Ironically, those who faced the greatest risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, those with less healthy nutrition and activity patterns, higher levels of obesity, lower income, poor health and less health care access, were those who took supplements less.

Despite the money parents spend to enhance their child’s well being, no research exists which proves supplements can lead to improved health. While it is true that vitamins and minerals are essential, especially for growing children, a diet consisting of a variety of wholesome foods, not pills, is the safest and most effective way to maintain good health.