If you believe the ads, every kid needs a daily Flintstone or Gummy Bear vitamin. But is it true?
Not necessarily so, the experts agree. Ideally, kids should get their vitamins from a balanced, healthy diet that includes:
- Milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt (preferably low-fat products for kids over age 3)
- Plenty of fresh fruits and leafy, green vegetables
- Protein like chicken, fish, meat, and eggs
- Whole grains like steel-cut oats and brown rice
Which Kids Need Vitamin Supplements?
Given the reality of time-crunched parents, those well-rounded, home-cooked meals aren't always possible. That's why pediatricians may recommend a daily multivitamin or mineral supplement for:
- Kids who aren't eating regular, well-balanced meals made from fresh, whole foods
- Finicky eaters who simply aren't eating enough
- Kids with chronic medical conditions such as asthma or digestive problems, especially if they're taking medications (be sure to talk with your child's doctor first before starting a supplement if your child is on medication)
- Kids eating a lot of fast foods, convenience foods, and processed foods
- Kids on a vegetarian or a vegan diet (they may need an iron supplement), a dairy-free diet (they may need a calcium supplement), or other restricted diet
- Kids who drink a lot of carbonated sodas, which can leach vitamins and minerals from their bodies
Top Six Vitamins and Minerals for Kids
In the alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals, a few stand out as critical for growing kids.
- 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 -- aid metabolism, energy production, and healthy circulatory and nervous systems. Good sources include meat, chicken, fish, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, beans, and soybeans.
- Vitamin C promotes healthy muscles, connective tissue, and skin. 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 fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. The best source of vitamin D is 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.
Megavitamins -- large doses of vitamins -- aren't a good idea for children. The fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) can be toxic if kids overdose on excessive amounts. Ditto with iron. Your kids can get too much of a good thing.
Look to Fresh Foods for the Best Vitamins
Healthy kids get their best start from what you put in your grocery cart.
Good nutrition starts by serving a wide variety of whole, fresh foods as much as possible. That's far better than serving up fast foods or convenience foods -- and hoping that taking a kids' vitamin will undo any nutritional no-no's. You'll find the most vitamins and minerals in foods high in carbohydrates and proteins (rather than fats). By far, the most high-vitamin foods of all are fresh fruits and vegetables.
To give kids more vitamins, aim for more variety -- not simply more food. Twice as many kids today are overweight than just two decades ago, so use kid-sized food portions, which are one-quarter to one-third the size of adult portions.
Spread the variety of foods into several small meals and snacks throughout the day. If your child won't eat a particular food for a few days -- like vegetables -- don't fret. But reintroduce those foods again a day or two later, perhaps prepared in a different way. Kids' "food strikes" usually end by themselves.
Vitamins and Healthy Kids: Five Tips
If you do give vitamins to your kids, follow these tips:
- Put vitamins away, well out of reach of children, so they don't treat them like candy.
- Try not to battle over foods with your kids or use desserts as a bribe to "clean your plate." Instead, give your child a chewable vitamin after the meal. Fat-soluble vitamins can only be absorbed with food.
- If your child is taking any medication, be sure to ask your child's doctor about any drug interactions with certain vitamins or minerals. Then the supplement won't boost or lower the medication dose.
- Try a chewable vitamin if your child won't take a pill or liquid supplement.
- Consider waiting until a child reaches age 4 to start giving a multivitamin supplement, unless your child's doctor suggests otherwise.