Healthy Kids     Health Guide    

Take your vitamins?

The lowdown on keeping your kids healthy

The lowdown on keeping your kids healthy

A daily multivitamin is a healthy basic for adults and kids alike, right? Maybe not. Late last year, the journal Annals of Internal Medicine deemed multivitamins and mineral supplements a massive money drain that don’t deliver promised health benefits.

Though the supplement industry is robust — Americans spend nearly $27 billion on supplements annually — doctors and researchers aren’t sold on the value of vitamins. According to Josh Boughton, the natural product director at the Village Apothecary located in Woodstock, “The vitamin and supplement industry is not regulated, like foods are.  That makes it difficult for parents to make decisions on which vitamins are viable for their children.”

Per a 2009 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, most kids and teens who pop a daily vitamin probably don’t need one because they get adequate nutrition from their diet. The same study found that kids with nutritional deficiencies are the least likely to take a supplement.

This leaves confused parents holding the bag — or, in this case, the bottle of brightly colored chewables.

The diet defense

As it turns out, deciding whether kids need a daily pill isn’t simple. If your child eats a varied diet that includes a few servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and plenty of whole grains, a multivitamin probably isn’t necessary, says Roufia Paymen, supervisor of Outpatient Nutrition & Education at Northern Dutchess Hospital.

“Make sure they eat plenty of leafy green vegetables,” says Paymen. She also suggests adding fish to your children’s diet, especially oily fish like salmon, plus nuts and seeds, and cereals fortified with vitamin D. “Believe it or not, avocados are also a great source of vitamin D,” says Payman.

Read more: Super foods to the rescue!

Laughingly, Paymen says that if your family eats out three or more days a week, your children probably need supplemental vitamins.

“Vitamin D is important to children’s growth,” says Payman. “Kids don’t get enough vitamin D from the sun for two reasons: one, we live in the north and during the fall and winter seasons we are exposed to less sun because of shorter days, and two, kids spend more time indoors playing computer games rather than going outside.”

Stuart Tashman, MD, a pediatrician at Middletown Medical agrees.  “Almost every patient I test is vitamin D deficient,” says Tashman. “It’s a rarity when I find a child who is not. Let’s admit it, most kids are horrible eaters.” The doctor recommends Tri-Vi-Sol or D-Sol, even for babies who are nursing. “I start kids as newborns on this vitamin D regiment. Although it is true there is vitamin D in breast milk, it is not enough.” After six months, he suggests Poly-Vi-Sol, which includes vitamins A, C and D.

Research agrees with Tashman’s assessment. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 400 IU (international units) per day for babies and 600 IU for children over the age of one.

When talking about supplements, Tashman says that many regions in our area do not have fluoridated water.  If that be the case, he suggests using Poly-Vi-Flor, which comes both liquid and tablets.

“If you have concerns about your child’s diet, speak to your pediatrician,” says Tashman. “For example, if you are a vegan you many become anemic and require B-12 supplements. Those who drink goat’s milk need folic acid.”

Then there’s the challenge of finding a kids’ vitamin that’s not full of unwanted additives or worse. A 2008 study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that a significant number of popular children’s vitamins were contaminated with lead. And they may not contain the vitamins or doses promised — independent testing service ConsumerLab found labeling errors in 40 percent of the vitamins studied.

Julie Gallagher ran into this very problem when she wanted a quality multivitamin for her 3-year-old, Will. “A good diet should cover everything, but I know I don’t prepare a perfect meal every night,” she says. But when she started looking, she found that nearly every kid’s vitamin contained a questionable ingredient: added sugar, artificial dyes (linked to behavior problems in children since the 1970s) or lead.

Paymen’s rule about vitamins is: NO preservatives, NO additives, NO artificial coloring and NO gluten. She suggests that you can usually find vitamins that meet her 4 NOs at local health food stores including as Adams Fairacre Farm, Nature’s Pantry, Mother Earth and Village Apothecary. She finds that even some supermarkets like Hannafords also carry vitamins with no additives.

Paymen offers three suggestions: 

1. Read the labels. Even if the label says organic doesn’t mean it is better for your child. The fewer ingredients the better; 

2. Make sure the supplements have no preservatives, corn syrup or hydrogenated oil, and 

3. Breakfast bars or even yogurt products are not always a healthy alternative for breakfast. Many include high fructose and corn syrup.

Boughton from the Village Apothocary disagrees with Paymen’s assessment. “Vitamin labels don’t tell the whole story. We carry a whole food vitamin that is made from actual food. For example, the vitamin C is made from a fruit concentrate and has less sugar than other products, explains Boughton. He suggests going to a center where staff understands the products they carry.

READ MORE: 9 ways to keep kids healthy

Is it safe to skip?

With all the questions surrounding supplements, some parents choose to bypass them altogether. But that may be a mistake, too. Picky eaters, exceptionally slow growers, chronically ill children or those who avoid certain food groups due to allergies or preferences may need added vitamins. Paymen says, “It can be very hard for kids on a restrictive diet to get everything they need for growth.”

In those cases, Paymen suggests asking your child’s doctor to see what he recommends. For example, dairy avoiders may need additional calcium and vitamin D supplements for healthy bones and teeth, or will need to develop a better understanding of the foods required to make sure that they are getting the necessary vitamin D nutrients.  Both Paymen and Tashman agree that vegans can benefit from supplements. Those who avoid grains or gluten might miss out on the magnesium or vitamin E found in whole grains.

Supplement savvy

What’s a parent to do? If your child won’t drink milk or gets stuck in an “I hate veggies!” phase, or if your family follows a restrictive diet a multivitamin is worth considering. Though food-based nutrition is ideal, it is not always possible or practical for all kids all the time.

A few simple blood tests can eliminate nutritional guessing games. Your family doctor can easily check levels of nutrients such as D, B12 and iron, and offer customized advice about supplementation.

But deciding whether to supplement is only half the battle; now you have to pick one. All vitamins aren’t created equal, and some manufacturers use cheaper ingredients that don’t absorb well, says Haylie Pomroy, a nutritionist, mom and author of The Fast Metabolism Diet.

Go for one with folate (look for “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “L-methylfolate” on the label) instead of synthetic folic acid; methylcobalamin (the bioactive form of B12); and cholecalciferol (the most active form of vitamin D). If a vitamin contains these superstars, Pomroy says, it’s likely high-quality.

After spending a “ridiculous” amount of time reading labels, Gallagher settled on a natural gummy vitamin. Now the real challenge: finding a safe spot to stash them so Will doesn’t overindulge. “He loves them,” Gallagher says. “He’d eat a whole bottle if he could!”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published parenting journalist.