Does my child need vitamins?
Would a supplement improve your child’s health? A dietician examines the evidence.
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Most children should be able to meet their nutritional requirements through consumption of a varied healthy diet.  But in some cases a little extra might be called for.

Which children need supplements?

Children who might benefit from a vitamin and mineral supplement include those who:

•  Live in food insecure homes. According to the National Food Consumption Survey, nationally, ½  the households experienced hunger, ¼  were at risk of hunger and only ¼ households appeared food secure. In rural areas a significantly higher percentage of households experienced hunger compared with those in the urban areas.

• Are picky eaters with poor eating habits.
• Have diseases including anemia, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS etc.
• Are on weight management diets for obesity. Studies have reported an increase in childhood obesity in South Africa .
• Consume vegetarian diets that completely exclude dairy products, for example vegans who exclude all animal products and their by-products.

How are our children?

In South Africa, the National Food Consumption Survey (NFCS) in 1999 and 2005 aimed to determine the nutrient intakes of children age 1 to 9, as well as factors that influence their dietary intake.

Some of the findings of this important research were:

• ½  of the children had an intake of approximately less than half of the recommended level for a number of important nutrients.

• The great majority of children consumed a diet deficient in energy and of poor nutrient density to meet their micronutrient requirements.

• The nutrient intake of children living in rural areas was overall considerably poorer than that of children living in urban areas.

• All variables associated with household food insecurity were associated with a poorer dietary intake and health, particularly stunting and underweight.

• The dietary intake of the following nutrients was less than 67% of the RDA (Recommended Dietary Intake):  Energy , Calcium ,Iron, Zinc, Selenium ,Vitamin A , Vitamin D , Vitamin C , Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Niacin,Vitamin B6

• Nationally, the most commonly consumed foods by South African children included maize, white sugar, tea, whole milk and brown bread.

Clearly, children are not getting the required nutrients that they need. It is important for parents to ensure that children eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, wholesome unprocessed foods.

Encourage children to drink plenty of clean water instead of fizzy drinks. Give them opportunities to play outside in the sunshine for exercise and the added bonus of Vitamin D activation in the body.

When using supplements

Parents who want to give their children vitamin and mineral supplements should make sure that the supplement contains no more than 1 RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of the vitamins and minerals for the ages of their children. RDAs are set high enough to more than meet the needs of most individuals in that category.

Read the label, and consult with professionals if you are not sure. Also ensure that the supplement does not contain any known allergen if your child suffers from allergies.

If you do purchase a vitamin and mineral supplement for your child then be sure to keep it hidden away or out of reach of your child. Most of them are shaped and to a certain extent even taste like sweets. Your child may be tempted to take more than the recommended dosage, which is potentially harmful. Responsible manufacturers are now putting child proof lids on the supplement jars (although my 4-year-old daughter can get through this hurdle!)

Further references:

Obesity in South Africa: A call for action.

Krause’s Food Nutrition & Diet Therapy

Does your child take vitamin and mineral supplements?

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