We all want the best for our kids, which means providing them with adequate nutrition. Of course, kids aren’t always the first to reach for broccoli and carrots making the job a bit more complicated. The standard go-to solution is to “make sure they take their vitamins” – but what does that really mean, and are all vitamins created equal? If the recent exposures of inaccurate labels and subpar ingredients are any indication, then no, we need to know and do a little more than just grab the supermarket multivitamin.
Today, we’re going to walk through the best and worst vitamins to keep your kids healthy from their first taste of veggies to their last meal before college.
Build the Right Foundation
The first priority lies unquestioningly in good eating habits. We’ve heard that “kids are resilient,” but that doesn’t extend to skipping meals or vital nutrients. Children are growing at a rapid pace, every single day, whether it’s toward a bigger shoe size or developed cognitive abilities, yet lack the nutrients to keep up with the pace. According to a CDC summary, most of our kids today
- “Do not meet the recommendations for eating 2½ cups to 6½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day
- Do not eat the minimum recommended amounts of whole grains (2–3 ounces each day)
- Eat more than the recommended maximum daily intake of sodium (1,500–2,300 mg each day).” (1)
This is a problem. Beginning in our homes, we have got to help our kids learn to choose real foods more often. There is also room for improvement in school lunches and other kid-focused meals. When we take into consideration these shortcomings and add to them food desserts, fast paced lifestyles, and schedules jam-packed with school and extracurricular events the importance of nutritional supplementation becomes clear.
With that, we need to pause for a moment and talk about what it means to take vitamins. Vitamins are relatively new discoveries in the scope of history, found in the early to mid 1900s. While a general understanding of nutrition has been passed down through the centuries, scientists have only recently begun isolating those nutrients and determining their benefits. By the 1940s, supplemental vitamins were available and a combination of more than one – a multivitamin – was widely marketed and used. From the 1970s forward, the US saw a steady increase in nutritional supplementation, with the most recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) data indicating over half of Americans use supplements, and one-third (from the age of one-year and older) take daily multivitamins. (2)
Now, multivitamins are often formulated to include minerals, as well, and occasionally herbal content. In fact, there is no set definition for a multivitamin, which leaves each manufacturer to determine what and how much they’d like to include in their product.
When it comes down our children, this generation has access to endless information and self-education, and we use it on the daily, especially with our children. Parents won’t necessarily default to a multivitamin and call it a day – not when their news feeds grant access to scandals and problems with box store brands and shady manufacturers. This could contribute to the 37% difference between those taking supplements and those taking multivitamins.
It’s an important shift to undergo as a society, because vitamin overuse is a real concern.
In the NIH surveys, preschoolers were most likely to take multivitamins out of all of the childhood age groups. However, the 2002 and 2008 Feeding Infants and Toddlers Survey (FITS) found that preschoolers generally obtain enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) already, even when their diet could stand improvement. (3) For some nutrients, there really can be too much of a good thing, and generalized supplements may cross that line.
Before giving your child any vitamins, minerals, or nutritional supplements, it is a good idea to figure out what she actually needs. This can begin as simply as analyzing the foods she eats to see what is lacking, or go as far as having her tested to see which nutrients her body needs.
From there, we have many more options than the new and exciting – but one-dimensional – multivitamins that our grandparents and great-grandparents took. Now, we can supplement the diet where we or our children lack, with the administration method that suits us best. Some of the more prominent kinds of supplements to look for include:
- Whole-foods based
The categories can overlap, of course, with a whole-foods, plant-based, liquid supplement, or they can be standalone features. A supplement that indicates any of these qualities will have a good running start toward high quality ingredients, simply because they are much less likely to be synthesized. Plant-based supplements will take advantage of the rich nutrients of the plant kingdom. And liquid formulations are often used because they are readily absorbed.
If you do feel confident that your child needs a multivitamin or specific supplement, look for these kinds of guarantees, as well as the exclusion of artificial ingredients and sweeteners. Better yet, here are some of the worst “vitamins” for kids that you can make sure to avoid.
Avoid the Worst Vitamins for Kids
Some of us grew up with the idea that if it’s good for you initially, “what could it hurt” to have a little more? Vitamins packaged as candy – juicy gummies or chalky chewables – reinforce the idea that multivitamins and supplements are just good to enjoy. It can be hard to reconcile the fact that they are potent and to be used as directed, preferably under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
When choosing vitamins for your children, be cautious or avoid three major supplement pitfalls – the worst vitamin choices:
- Too much fat-soluble vitamins,
- Candy-like commercialized products, and
- Stacked supplements.
To be fat-soluble means that the vitamins are processed then stored in the body. Where other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients typically circulate in the blood and then are either utilized or eliminated, fat-soluble vitamins stick around. Since the body is all about balance, there is an upper threshold for these vitamins. And the supplements aren’t our only sources – many foods, particularly those that kids consume, are fortified with additional nutrients, including the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. WebMD cautions,
“But the combination of whole foods, supplements, and fortified foods raises safety concerns with experts. Eating fortified foods while also taking supplements can cause a person’s diet to exceed safe upper levels and potentially lead to a toxic buildup.” (4)
The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. While there are certainly times each are needed in supplement form (more on that in a moment), it’s unwise to simply give your kids a multivitamin with excessive amounts of these nutrients when they may not lack them to begin with. Vitamins should be helping the body fight toxicity, not building it from within.
I don’t mean you should find obscure manufacturers – in fact, you definitely want to be familiar with your supplement production company and trust their quality. But a vitamin that’s marketed as a candy is probably not worth having. Check ingredient labels faithfully for additives, synthetic ingredients, dyes, and artificial sweeteners, all of which are found in the ever popular Flintstones vitamins. (5) While it makes sense to make vitamins taste good and be easy for kids to swallow, it does not follow to pair the nutrients with unnecessary and potentially dangerous additives.
Good intentions or not, the worst vitamin you can buy for your kids is one that looks like candy. Kids should learn from an early age that nutrients come from food, but that science and the plant kingdom provide medicine, remedies, and the ability to protect our health and wellness. They should also know how strong these substances can be, and that they should be treated with respect.
The absolute worst vitamin you can give your kid is not only one that he doesn’t need, but one that he’s already taking. If you are self-educating and learning about nutrients that are needed for certain concerns, be careful that you don’t overload your child’s system inadvertently. Remembering that fortified foods act as a supplement of sorts, all sources of current intake should be considered before adding a supplemental nutrient or multivitamin with high levels of certain nutrients. The NIH review cited earlier went on to discuss this dilemma, concluding,
“…use of supplements tended to push intakes of some nutrients— particularly vitamin A, folic acid, and (for the older preschool children) zinc—over the UL. The investigators advised parents not to give young children dietary supplements or fortified foods containing high levels of vitamin A and zinc.” (6)
So before you choose a vitamin or supplement for your child, know what they need, know what they are already getting, and only select high quality, food-based versions of that nutrient to avoid overuse and unwanted additives.
Choose the Best Vitamins
Clearly, the best vitamin for your kid is the one that they need. To truly optimize your selection, find a local chiropractor, nutritionist, or other health care professional who will work with you to determine what your child is lacking and where you can help them improve. If that is not an option, a multivitamin with high levels of vitamins and minerals included may not be the best answer after all.
Instead of going for blanket-coverage with a multivitamin, I recommend these four supplements as the best “vitamins” for kids – even though they aren’t technically vitamins – with some important details and caveats included:
- Vitamin D
If you’re following along, you might be wondering where this list came from in light of the concerns raised about fat-soluble vitamins. There is great debate surrounding Vitamin D, its role in the body and in nutrition, and the best way to consume it.
As the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D is actually produced by the body when UV rays are absorbed by the skin. Once triggered, Vitamin D promotes nutrient absorption, cell health, and bone growth and health. (7) Sun exposure, without sunblock, isn’t always feasible or advisable, in which case few natural food sources can provide vitamin D. Supplementation for kids has long been recommended at the full daily value of 400IU/day, particularly for infants who are not breastfeeding. (8)
Worldwide, iron deficiency has emerged as the “most common and concerning nutritional disorder in the world,” the World Health organization explains. Over 30% of the world’s population is anemic. (9) Green supplements like spirulina and chlorella are the powder or concentration of the food itself – in this case, algae and seaweed – as a natural source of this vital mineral. First trials have been favorable for spirulina’s benefits on many health concerns, anemia included. (10)
Unless your children enjoy cod liver oil, flax seeds, and oysters, chances are they aren’t getting the omega-3 fats they need. With essential fatty acids driving brain power, omega-3s are absolutely necessary for a healthy childhood. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests omega-3 supplementation could help children with ADHD; one such review notes that supplementing with omega-3 to correct deficiency helps to improve cognition. (11)
While children are typically able to obtain the macronutrients they need, it isn’t always from high quality sources. By adding a high quality protein supplement to a child’s routine, they not only obtain the macronutrient but also the benefits of the source itself. Whey protein, for example, has been called an “immunonutrient” and could help to boost the natural immune function your child’s body already carries. (12)
All true vitamins are necessary for health, but not all vitamin supplements are required or even worth pursuing. Learn the nutrients your child needs, find out whether she is lacking, and think outside of the multi-bottle before choosing which supplement or supplements she needs. The best vitamin for your child won’t always be the best vitamin for my child, and it may not be a vitamin at all.