This blog was first published in September 2016.
Dr Anthea Rhodes, RCH Paediatrician and Director, Australian Child Health Poll
As we near the end of winter many parents have dealt with an unwell child (or entire family!) over recent months. With busy modern lifestyles we look for ways to help keep our family well. Vitamins and supplements present themselves as a convenient option. Pharmacy and supermarket aisles are lined with brightly coloured products, claiming to help keep your child healthy. Gummies, fizzies and chews aplenty to give your child ‘the edge’.
The latest Australian Child Health Poll reveals that nationally, we’re spending an estimated $74 million a year on vitamins and supplements for children aged under 15 years.
In fact, the poll shows that 42 per cent of kids and teenagers are taking vitamins and supplements. In many cases, parents are giving their children vitamins to boost their immune system or to improve their energy levels even though there is no clear evidence that they have this effect.
So do kids really need them?
In the vast majority of cases, no, and here’s why:
- Most Australian children get all the vitamins and minerals they need from a healthy and varied diet.
- Even ‘picky eaters’ are rarely vitamin deficient and it is far better to tackle the problem of a narrow diet by offering different types of foods than by popping a pill. If your child is a picky eater, see a health professional for tips and advice on managing the issue or see what my colleague Dr Margie has to say about this here.
- Many common foods, including milk, bread, and some breakfast cereals, are fortified with important nutrients, such as B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and iron. So your child may be getting more vitamins and minerals than you think.
- More is not necessarily better: our bodies only need very small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Excessive vitamins and minerals will mostly be excreted by the body in the wee without harm. But excessive intake of fat soluble vitamins, particularly vitamin A, can cause serious health problems.
- Good nutrition starts by eating a wide variety of whole fresh foods. Giving your kids regular multivitamins may contribute to a belief that they don’t need to be eating a well-balanced diet with adequate fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods.
- Some people believe vitamins and other supplements can contribute to boosting immunity, helping kids concentrate and even improving their intelligence. There is no clear scientific evidence to show that vitamins can have these effects in otherwise healthy children and teenagers.
There are some important situations where children may need to be on vitamins or supplements for nutritional deficiencies. These include:
- If your child has a chronic disease that may effect the way they absorb foods
- If your child has a growth problem, or is failing to thrive
- If your child is on a particularly restrictive diet, such as vegan or multiple food allergies
- If your child is at risk of low vitamin D, including children with darker skin and infants who have been breastfed for a long time by a mother who is low in vitamin D.
If you are concerned that your child may be low in essential vitamins or minerals, see your doctor for advice. In many cases multivitamins may not contain enough of the particular vitamin that your child is missing and a doctor or dietitian can advise you on the best way to ensure your child is getting everything they need for healthy growth and development.
See here for some useful links on medicines and children, including vitamins and supplements, on the Australian Child Health Poll website.