When the word vitamins is mentioned, most people think ‘pills’, but according to Clinical Paediatric Dietician Kath Megaw, although vitamins can and certainly most often do the work of both medicine and drugs, they are neither.
"Quite simply vitamins are organic substances necessary for life. Vitamins are essential to the normal functioning of our children’s bodies and besides a few exceptions, cannot be made by the body. Vitamins are necessary for growth and general well-being," she says.
However, she is quick to point out that vitamins are neither pep pills nor substitute for food.
"A lot of people think vitamins can replace food - they cannot. In fact vitamins cannot be assimilated without eating food. Vitamins have no energy value of their own. If you think of the body as a car’s combustion engine and vitamins as sparks plugs, you have a fairly good idea of how these amazing minute food substances work for us."
Vitamins in children
Many professional organisations, such as the American Academy of paediatrics and the South African Dietetic association, strongly recommend that in healthy children, diet is the best source of vitamins and minerals.
Recent study results showed that children who do not really need vitamin and mineral supplements were more likely to take supplements. Those children who would benefit from supplements were less likely to take supplements, such as those who had health problems, less active lifestyles and limited access to food and health care.
"The best way to ensure your children get plenty of vitamins and minerals is to emphasise eating a variety of healthy foods. Offer foods from the different food groups to your kids each day and prepare meals with nutrients that complement each other," says Megaw.
However this may be easier said than done and Megaw adds that a healthy diet like that may sound great to many kids, but not to all.
"Children don’t always eat the way we would like them to eat and a picky eater may not get all the vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients he or she needs. There are a variety of reasons why a child may need supplementation. Examples include children who are failing to thrive, have restricted diets, or have illnesses that put them at risk for a deficiency of a vitamin or mineral."
Common deficiencies in children
One common deficiency in children's diets are the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Megaw explains that EFAs are essential for proper nervous system and brain function, which is very important during those long school days.
"This essential fatty acid can be found in pumpkin seeds, cold oily ocean fish like tuna, canola oil and flax oil. It can also be taken as a dietary supplement if kids won’t like the strong taste of oily fish or other foods."
Kids who snub fruits and vegetables may not be getting enough vitamin C.
The B complex vitamins have several functions. A child who has a high refined sugar and starch diet may deplete those important B vitamins.
"Everyone’s needs are different, and for this reason manufacturers have provided many vitamins in a variety of forms. Vitamins come in different forms because people do. For children liquids are available for easy mixing with beverages or giving via a spoon or syringe. Chewable vitamins are also available, but be careful of the use of sugars and artificial colourants and flavourants.
The countless brands of commercially available vitamins are synthetic and though synthetic vitamins and minerals have produced satisfactory results, the benefits from natural vitamins , on a variety of levels surpass them. Make sure you purchase high quality children’s dietary supplements – supplements that are as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible."
Vitamins in moderation
Before you supplement though, Megaw advises that you remember that large doses of vitamins or megavitamins, may put children at risk for nNausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, nerve problems and liver abnormalities.
"Overall the best strategy is to first choose from a wide variety of foods. Emphasise fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat free or low fat milk and milk products. Include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans , eggs and nuts. Keep diets low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.
"A children's multi vitamin dietary supplement, plus an omega 3 essential fatty acid make a good basic dietary supplement program for most children Children with health problems that need more complex dietary supplementation should be determined by a health professional."
Reference; Kath Megaw, Clinical Paediatric Dietician. For more information visit www.nutripaeds.co.za
(Amy Froneman, Health24, May 2012)