By Alan Greene, MD
You know that it is wise to back up your computer’s hard drive; I recommend backing up your child’s food drive with a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement. This simple habit could improve your child’s health and even intelligence. I’ll explain briefly why I feel strongly about this:
For young babies, breast milk provides an ideal food.
The match between their complex nutritional needs and the milk that moms make is spectacular. In their dance of supply and demand, babies are designed with a drive to enjoy just the right amount and moms are designed to make just the right amount. Even so, I do suggest that many breastfed babies take 200 IU of vitamin D daily, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends – but not because of any lack in breast milk. We are built to get vitamin D from sun exposure. Because of the amount of time babies spend indoors, and the depleted-ozone-caused need for sunscreen when babies spend much time outdoors, many babies need an extra boost of this important vitamin, linked not just to building strong bones, but also to preventing breast cancer, colon cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
I used to think that when breast feeding was over, so was the age of perfect foods. Now I understand that children are perfectly designed to thrive on a balanced variety of whole foods: fresh fruits, various veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean sources of protein and calcium. They are even designed to enjoy just the right amounts of these ideal foods, as long as their food drives aren’t tricked by empty calories, added fats, sweetened drinks, etc. Children should be able to get all of the vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients they need for optimum development by eating the right combinations and right amounts of healthful foods.
But the reality is that most kids today do NOT get the micronutrients they need from what they eat. Not by a long shot. By some estimates, only 2% of kids regularly eat the recommended number of servings of different food groups. The result is that, even though the typical American child eats too many calories, the typical child is getting suboptimal levels of many key nutrients, including thousands of food components (phytonutrients) we are just beginning to learn about.
And there are 13 major, named micronutrients, “the Greene 13”, that concern me the most: calcium, fiber, folic acid, iron, magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids (especially DHA), phosphorous (except for kids who drink carbonated beverages and get too much phosphorus), potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and zinc. Most kids don’t get enough of at least one of these. One in six girls get iron at levels low enough to affect their test scores. Seven out of ten boys and nine out of ten girls don’t get enough calcium at key times of growth. A daily multivitamin is more than just a safety net for occasional nutritional accidents. It is also like spackle to fill in the small nutritional holes, gaps, and cracks that many children develop every day. One could compare it to defragging the nutrients, or to a patch for their operating system. And beyond this, it can help a child thrive the way we all want.
A June 2001 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews compared the results of 13 double-blind placebo-controlled trials of multivitamins and their effect on the intelligence of children. Ten of the studies analyzed were able to measure a boost in non-verbal intelligence in those children who got a daily multivitamin. I’m not surprised. We know these nutrients affect our intelligence, our growth, our behavior, and our immune systems, and that typical American children do not get enough.
I recommend starting the supplement spackle at the first birthday, unless the child is on a toddler formula that already has the extras added. The body and brain are growing especially fast up to age 3, when many kids are notoriously picky eaters (with French fries the most popular vegetable, apple juice the most popular fruit, and white flour the most popular grain).
Not all vitamins are created equal.
One extremely popular kids brand contains hydrogenated vegetable oil, the chemical dyes FD&C Blue #2 Lake, FD&C Red #40 Aluminum Lake, FD&C Yellow #6 Aluminum Lake, artificial flavors, aspartame, sugar, butylated hydroxytoluene (this preservative is a suspected carcinogen banned in all foods in Japan and Australia, and in baby foods in the U.S.), carrageenan, gelatin, and pregelatinized starch.
So what should you look for in a multivitamin?
Depending on how your child eats, you probably want to supplement with 50% to 100% of the age-appropriate recommended doses of at least “the Greene 13” (listed above). You may not find all of these in one place. In fact, it can be a great idea to look for other sources of calcium, fiber, and omega 3’s (DHA), either in foods or in supplements.
Most children probably do not need or benefit from extra-large supplemental doses of vitamins or minerals, and especially not vitamin A or iron. Most children certainly do not benefit from artificial colors or preservatives, or from extra helpings of sugars or artificial sweeteners found in some children’s vitamins.
Look for vitamins with low-sugar, or healthy sweetener options.
I suggest not starting with gummy or candy vitamins, because daily candy is not a lesson kids need to learn, and it can be a hard habit to break. Where possible, food sources of the vitamins and minerals in the supplements may contain many more nutrients than named on the label. Don’t settle for pop-culture standards. A healthy food store is a great place to ask for help selecting the best vitamins for your child.
But whatever vitamin you choose, the simple habit of a daily multivitamin/mineral can be an important back-up to your child’s food drive, a smart idea in a culture that seems bent on enticing children with foods that undermine their body’s wisdom.