This is the final post in my Kids’ Nutrition Series
For many parents, the added nutrition multivitamins provide for kids gives them peace of mind. According to one study, just over 40 percent of kids between the ages of 2 to 8 take vitamins on a regular basis.
But before deciding to supplement your child’s diet, I have important check-offs for you. The truth? When used correctly, vitamin supplements for kids can be helpful in preventing deficiencies (and minimizing worry for parents). But in some cases, they are simply not needed and you would be better off saving your money.
1. What fortified foods are they consuming?
In Part 2 of our series, I discussed the issue of over-nutrition with an increase in fortified foods. Go through your cabinets and check the other sources of added nutrition your child gets, including cereal, bars, waffles, drinks, and snack foods.
In some cases, fortified foods already act like multivitamins, providing added nutrition to help cover nutrition gaps such as iron, zinc, and vitamin C. When multivitamins are added on top of fortified foods, kids may get too much of certain nutrients including folic acid and vitamin A.
2. How is their overall diet?
Children who eat from all the food groups (most of the time) typically don’t need multivitamins. Evidence suggests that young children between 2 and 8 are the least likely to fall short on nutrients except for some outliers like vitamin D and calcium.
But children who eat poorly with few fortified foods, are underweight, on a restricted diet (that includes strict vegetarians), and have certain medical conditions may benefit from a multivitamin.
3. Are they getting enough iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA?
Whether or not you decide to give a multivitamin doesn’t mean other supplements aren’t needed. That’s because multivitamins don’t always contain iron, potassium, DHA or enough calcium — all key nutrients kids tend to fall short on.
In Part 5, we discuss how to examine your child’s diet for nutrition gaps. Little meat or non-meat alternatives often means iron and zinc may be low. Low fruits and veggies often mean low potassium, fiber, and vitamins C and A. Poor intake of calcium-rich foods, both dairy and non-dairy items, means calcium may be inadequate. And if they skip fish and other DHA-rich foods they are likely falling short on DHA. Of course, a “food first” approach is best but if kids are reluctant, supplementation may be needed.
What most multivitamins do contain is vitamin D, a vitamin most children need, especially in the winter months. If you decide against the multivitamin, taking a separate vitamin D supplement makes sense.
4. What makes a good vitamin supplement?
First and foremost, a good vitamin supplement is one that meets a child’s needs. You can have a quality supplement but if it fails to meet nutrition gaps it doesn’t matter. Avoid supplements with more than 100% DV for each nutrient — most companies translate the DVs (made for adults) to that of children.
This article from consumer reports helps you find vitamins and minerals that have third-party testing.
Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA for safety, you can also look for the USP certification. A vitamin that is USP certified has been tested for amounts specified, harmful contaminants, how it is broken down and released into the body, and if it’s made according to FDA’s Good Manufacturing Processes. Go here for USP verified products. Can’t find USP? Another certification to look for is NSF.
Don’t forget to check for additional ingredients. Most of the chewable vitamins contain a source of sugar but per serving it is usually isn’t much (<2g or less per serving). Unfortunately, some vitamins contain artificial colors such as Flintstone Complete, Centrum Kids Chewables, and CVS Kids Chewables. So check the ingredient line before making your decision.
5. Do they still need it?
The bottom line: understanding which nutrients (if any) are missing in your child’s diet and find supplement(s) that best match those needs. Because giving a multivitamin for insurance purposes provides a false sense of security. It’s smart for parents to re-evaluate their child’s vitamin regimen periodically as kids eating habits are ever-changing.
I hope this series has given you a better understanding of your child’s nutritional needs and how to meet them with food — and supplements if needed. Any questions?
Updated April 2015
For more on kids’ nutrition at every stage and age, check out Maryann’s book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School