The multibillion-dollar multivitamin industry markets its products so extensively, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone always needs to take a multivitamin. But that’s not the case. As a general rule, kids don’t need to take multivitamins, experts say.
“The vast majority of children don’t need to take a multivitamin,” says Dr. Eric Ball, a pediatrician with Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California. Instead, children should “obtain all of the vitamins and minerals they need from their food.”
Supplementing unnecessarily can actually be problematic, says Hanane Dahoui, a pediatrician and medical director of ambulatory pediatrics with Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Florida. “While it may seem harmless to give your child vitamins as an ‘insurance policy,’ receiving large amounts of certain vitamins such as vitamin A, C or D can cause nausea, rashes, headaches and sometimes even more severe adverse effects.”
Dahoui notes that one reason your child may not need a daily vitamin is that “the amount of food your child needs to eat to get enough vitamins is probably much smaller than you think.” Plus, “many common foods such as breakfast cereal, pasta, milk, granola bars and bread are fortified with important nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B and iron,” she adds.
Vitamins for Growing Kids
Kids need to get the full complement of vitamins and minerals from foods each day because their bodies are growing. In particular, the following vitamins are especially important for supporting kids’ growing bodies:
- Vitamin A. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that supports healthy eyesight, normal growth and tissue repair. It’s found in a variety of vegetables and fruits, liver and dairy products.
- B vitamins. The B vitamins fulfill many functions in the body, including helping with red blood cell development and supporting a healthy metabolism. These vitamins can be found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and enriched foods such as grains and cereals.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C supports a healthy immune system and skin and helps kids grow strong muscles. It’s found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a very important vitamin for kids as it helps the body build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Many dairy products are fortified with it, and the skin makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb calcium from the diet.
- Calcium. Calcium is another really important mineral for kids because it helps them develop strong bones and teeth. Kids who don’t get enough may develop rickets, a growth disorder in the bones. Calcium can be found in dairy products, dark leafy greens, tofu and fortified juices.
- Iron. Iron is an important nutrient for kids as it helps growing bodies and blood cell production. Iron can be found in beans, fish, turkey, beef and fortified cereals.
Selecting a few foods from each of the basic food groups can help your child meet their nutritional needs each day.
Some Special Cases Warrant Supplementation
For example, if your child is lactose intolerant or doesn’t drink milk, they may not be getting enough calcium or vitamin D in their diet.
“School-aged children generally need three to four servings per day of calcium and vitamin D-rich foods to help build healthy bones,” Ball says. “Children who don’t obtain enough in their diet sometimes need a supplement.”
Dahoui notes that other cases where kids might need supplementation include:
- Breastfed infants and babies drinking less than 1 liter of baby formula. These children are at risk of vitamin D deficiency and should receive 400 international units of vitamin D each day. “Vitamin D is important for bone growth and helps prevent a bone condition known as rickets, where deformities in the legs can develop,” she explains.
- Children on limited diets such as a vegetarian or vegan diet. These kids are potentially at risk for iron deficiency and B12 deficiency. Your health care provider may recommend a B12 vitamin supplement because this vitamin is only found in animal-based food.
- Children with chronic medical conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and cystic fibrosis. Children with these or other conditions may also need supplementation because they may not be able to properly absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Children who take certain medications can also experience vitamin deficiencies.
If your child has a food allergy or other medical condition that prevents them from eating certain foods, work with your pediatrician to determine whether a multivitamin supplement is a good choice. Ball notes that when choosing a product, less may be more. “It’s not healthy for a child to take a vitamin that has high doses of vitamins. You should look for one that provides for the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and not much more.”
Dahoui adds that “while there may be some instances when taking a vitamin is appropriate, it’s important to discuss the risks and benefits with your health care provider before starting your child on a vitamin supplement. Choose a vitamin that’s designed for your child’s age group and make sure you read the labels.”
Also, if your child isn’t able to swallow pills yet, look for a chewable option.
Dahoui stresses that you need to exercise caution in how vitamins are handled as well. First, keep them out of reach of children and store them in childproof containers to avoid accidental overdoses. “Children’s vitamins and supplements may come in fun colors and taste good. Make sure you tell your child that vitamins are a kind of medicine – not candy. You don’t want your toddler begging for more.”
And when giving a supplement, be sure to only give the recommended dose. “Overdoing it on supplements can be dangerous,” Dahoui says.
Food-Based Nutrients Are Best
Even if your child is taking a vitamin to address a specific health need, you still need to pay attention to offering them a balanced, healthy diet. “The USDA recommends that parents use MyPlate.gov for children as a guideline for how much of certain foods kids and adolescents need for a healthy diet.” These guidelines were developed with the appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals kids need in mind, Dahoui says.
MyPlate is divided into five food group categories, which emphasize nutritional intake of:
- Whole grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain. “Examples include whole-wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal,” Dahoui says.
- Vegetables. Choose a variety of colorful vegetables, including dark green, red and orange vegetables, legumes (including peas and beans) and starchy vegetables.
- Fruits. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen or dried, and may be whole, cut up or pureed. Fruit juice can sometimes count toward this serving, although it’s important to check the label and make sure it contains real fruit content and isn’t made from concentrates or full of sweeteners.
- Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. “Focus on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium,” Dahoui says.
- Protein. “Go lean on protein,” Dahoui says. She recommends opting for “low-fat or lean meats and poultry or fish. For vegetarian protein choices, look toward nuts, beans and peas.”
The best way to ensure your child is getting proper nutrition, Ball says, “is to make sure that healthy foods are available in the house and offered to them at each meal.”
He also notes that until your kids have money of their own and can drive, you, the parent, are “in control of the vast majority of the food that children are offered. It’s critical to feed them healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables and to not offer them other options if they refuse the foods that are presented.”
To be sure, this is sometimes easier said than done. Ball says it can be helpful to offer your child “a few acceptable choices. As an example, if children are offered apples or crackers for snack, most will choose the crackers. Whereas if they’re offered apples or pears, they’ll be more likely to eat fruit.”
Lastly, Ball notes, “food is always preferable to supplements,” so work with your pediatrician or a nutritionist to tweak your child’s diet for best results.