Updated 27 October 2016

Should your child take a supplement?

Intimidated by the shelf in your local supermarket that groans under the vitamin and mineral supplements for children? Then read on.

In an ideal world, all children are healthy, follow a varied and interesting diet, love fruit and vegetables, and have parents with the time and energy to cook fresh meals and pack interesting lunchboxes.

However, we have to deal with the reality of kids who have health problems, who are picky eaters, parents who have an overfull schedule and little time to cook fresh and varied meals, and the presence of easily accessible processed foods.

For healthy kids who follow a varied diet, the American Academy of Paediatrics doesn’t recommend. But they do concede that they may be necessary for kids who don’t eat as they should. After all, a vitamin and/or mineral deficiency can lead to serious health problems, such as iron-deficiency anaemia and rickets due to vitamin D deficiency.

It is emphasised by researchers that children need a more varied diet, not more food. A diet rich in milk and dairy products, fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, protein (fish, meat, chicken or eggs) and whole grains (such as oats, low-GI brown bread and brown rice) can go a long way to ensure optimal nutrition for your child.

Focus on these nutrients
Even though vitamin and mineral supplements can never be a substitute for healthy eating, no one can deny that a good multivitamin can be a lifesaver for children with certain chronic diseases, those with particularly nutrient-poor diets, or children who are run-down after an illness or a stressful time.

When considering a supplement for your child, it’s important to know which combinations of vitamins and minerals are best, as children’s needs differ from those of adults.

The following vitamins are essential for growing kids:

- Vitamin A (promotes growth and development)
- Vitamin Bs (energy production)
- Vitamin C (promotes healthy muscles)
- Vitamin D (bone and tooth formation)
- Calcium (strong bones)
- Iron (builds muscle)

Children who definitely need a daily multivitamin or mineral supplement, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics, include the following:

- Those who are very picky eaters, or who are simply not eating enough
- Those on a restricted diet (such as a vegan, vegetarian or dairy-free diet)
- Children who eat lots of fast foods and drink lots of carbonated drinks
- Children who have chronic medical conditions such as asthma or digestive problems
- Children who regularly take part in very demanding sports

Ask for help first
Before giving your child a supplement, it’s important to speak to your doctor or pharmacist, as dietary supplements may interfere with other medications your child may be taking. Side effects in children may also differ from those in adults.

Iron and fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) can furthermore be toxic to children when taken in large amounts. As with all medication and supplements, it’s best to stick to dosage instructions.
And, lastly, it’s important to keep vitamins and minerals out of the reach of children – especially the chewable variety, as these can easily be mistaken for sweets.

Sources: WebMD;; US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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