Little Miss Muffett and the Multivitamin

Why growing kids need more than curds and whey
By Cara Lucas

French fries. Ketchup. The dreaded chicken finger. They are all staples for most young diets these days. But, hey, even if these novice eaters consume their vegetables fried, carb-loaded, or sugar-heavy, at least they are getting them, right?

Wrong. For children, it’s never too early to integrate a sense of good nutrition—in fact, their growing needs demand it.

“The major consideration is diet. Many agree that consuming a varied diet is sufficient for obtaining necessary nutrition, but because children are notoriously picky eaters, and because most diets are simply not varied enough, children often come up short,” explains Keri Marshall, MS, ND. “Add to this food intolerances and a spectrum of health conditions that many children encounter, and the need for additional vitamins and minerals may increase.”

Multivitamins: Filling in the gaps

Too many kids today, from toddlers to adolescents, dig themselves into a nutritional rut by basing their diet on only a few familiar items. When this happens, they miss out on an array of nutrients essential to their changing needs.

“The benefit of a multivitamin is that it covers a large nutritional spectrum to fill in the gaps that may appear in an individual, depending on one’s health, and dietary and life circumstances,” says Dr. Marshall.

According to the USDA, less than half of children consume the recommended number of servings in any given food pyramid group. Almost 80 percent do not eat the recommended number of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.

Consider the research showing how kids benefit from taking a multivitamin. A recent study by British neuroscientists reports that children eight to 14 who used daily multivitamin and mineral supplements for four to12 weeks showed improved accuracy in attention-based tasks, along with improved cognition and mood. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, out of the 2,423 children who participated, those who supplemented with multivitamins at or before four years old reduced their risk of food and seasonal allergies by 39 percent.

Granted, medical experts stress that children can get all the proper nutrients from eating a well-balanced, well-rounded diet. But if this isn’t possible for whatever reason (food allergies, restrictive diet, or a very picky eater) a multivitamin is a great alternative.

Does my child need a multivitamin?

First, encourage your child to eat in colors—preferably those vibrant colors found in fruits and vegetables. This is a fun and challenging way for them to get a well-rounded assortment of important nutrients, and to learn how to associate certain vitamins with foods.

But while it’s great to encourage your kids to eat in colors, it’s all too unfortunate that they don’t always like to taste the rainbow.

“The best way to determine if your child could benefit from a multivitamin is to discuss these considerations with his or her doctor,” says Dr. Marshall.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a multivitamin for kids with a poor appetite or erratic eating habits. The AAP acknowledges that a multivitamin/mineral supplement won’t hurt as long as it doesn’t exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for any vitamin or mineral. The RDA is calculated to provide 100 percent of the dietary needs for 98.6 percent of the population.

What kind of vitamin should I give my child?

As previously stated, it’s important to consider the specific needs of your child. If he or she is very active and plays physically demanding sports, eats a lot of fast food or processed food, goes overboard on carbonated beverages, or is on a restricted diet (like vegetarian or dairy-free), you may want to consider a giving them a multivitamin. Be sure to talk with your child’s doctor first before starting a supplement if your child is on medication or has a chronic medical condition such as asthma.

So what does a good multivitamin consist of? It really depends on the situation. Kids are unique and ever-changing individuals who need special nutrients as they grow and develop. First, make sure to look for a multivitamin that targets your child’s age group and RDA allowances. Next, pick a naturally derived multivitamin that contains no artificial colors or flavors, or sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, sucralose, Splenda, aspartame, or NutraSweet.

ABCs of nutrition

“It’s obvious to any parent that kids are honest about food preferences. Almost universally, children favor sweet foods,” says Dr. Marshall. “This is not only because such foods are high in calories (which children crave) but also because sweet foods can actually reduce the sensation of pain for children. The catch, of course, is that too much of any sweet food is not good for health.”

Children differ in their nutritional needs just as adults do, but there are some standard vitamins and minerals in multivitamins that just about all kids will benefit from.

>> Vitamin A promotes normal growth and development, tissue and bone repair, and healthy skin, eyes, and immune responses. Good sources include milk, cheese, eggs, and yellow-to-orange vegetables like carrots, yams, and squash.

>> Vitamin Bs The family of B vitamins— B2, B3, B6, and B12—aids metabolism, energy production, and healthy circulatory and nervous systems. Good sources include meat, chicken, fish, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, beans, and soybeans. “Any multivitamin that contains B vitamins should not be taken on an empty stomach, so when a multi does contain the Bs, it is important to take it either with a meal or immediately following one,” advises Dr. Marshall. “This will prevent any potential feelings of nausea that may arise from taking it on an empty stomach.”

>> Vitamin C promotes healthy muscles, connective tissue, and skin. It’s essential for healthy bones, teeth, gums, and blood vessels. It helps the body absorb iron and calcium, aids in wound healing, and contributes to brain function. Good sources include citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi, tomatoes, and green vegetables like broccoli.

>> Vitamin D promotes bone and tooth formation and helps the body absorb calcium. Good sources include milk and other fortified dairy products, egg yolks, and fish oil. The best source of vitamin D3 doesn’t come from the diet— it’s sunlight.

>> Calcium helps build strong bones as a child grows. Good sources include milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, and calcium-fortified orange juice.

>> Iron builds muscle and is essential to healthy red blood cells. Iron deficiency is a risk in adolescence, especially for girls once they begin to menstruate. Good sources include beef and other red meats, turkey, pork, spinach, beans, and prunes.

>> Magnesium fortifies the bones, keeps the heart healthy, supports the immune system, and maintains muscle and nerve function. Nuts and legumes are some of the best sources for magnesium.

>> EFAs or essential fatty acids (Omega-3, 6, 9), can prevent and treat many health conditions such as digestive problems, cognitive functions, inflammation, joint health, and heart disease. Kids need fat in their diet, but make it good fat: flaxseed oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, tuna, and salmon are a few examples.

Vitamins Aren’t Candy

With the variety of appealing shapes, colors, and flavors that vitamins come in, children often mistakenly view them as candy, and may even eat several at a time if given the opportunity. It’s important that you treat vitamins as medicine: make sure the caps are childproof and keep bottles out of the reach of your child.

Dr. Marshall recommends that kids take a multivitamin with breakfast as “the slight energy boost that some may initially feel after taking their daily multi can benefit a child as they prepare to head off to school for the day.”

And remember, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Consult your child’s pediatrician before starting any supplementation to your child’s diet.