If the world were a perfect place, we wouldn’t have to worry about giving supplements to our families. Children are miraculously designed to thrive on a balanced variety of whole foods: fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean sources of protein and calcium.
But we’ve got a couple of factors working against us. First, our natural food instincts that drive us to eat the right amount of healthful, balanced foods can be tricked by empty calories, added fats, sweetened drinks, etc. Even parents who manage to steer kids from temptation will find another challenge: our foods don’t contain the same levels of micronutrients they used to.
The typical American child eats too many calories, but most get suboptimal levels of many key nutrients, including food components called phytonutrients that we are just beginning to understand. I worry most about “the Greene 13,”: 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. We know these micronutrients affect our intelligence, our growth, our behavior, and our immune systems – and that typical American children do not get enough.
So what should you look for in a multivitamin? You want to supplement with 50-100 percent of the age-appropriate recommended doses of at least the Greene 13. I recommend starting your children on supplements by the first birthday, or whenever they start cutting down on breast milk or formula. The body and brain are growing especially fast up to age 3, when many kids are notoriously picky eaters, and when we find French fries the most popular vegetable, apple juice the most popular fruit, and white flour the most popular grain.
Not all children’s vitamins are created equal. I suggest avoiding gummy or candy vitamins because daily candy is not a lesson kids need to learn. One extremely popular brand contains hydrogenated vegetable oil, the chemical dyes, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, and the preservative butylated hydroxytoluene.
A healthy food store is a great place to ask for help selecting the best vitamins for your child. Look for vitamins with low sugar or healthy sweetener options. You don’t need to pick the supplements with extra-large doses of vitamins or minerals, especially not vitamin A or iron.
Whatever vitamin you choose, make sure you help your family establish the simple habit of taking a daily multivitamin/mineral. It’s a smart way to make sure your kids have the nutritional fortitude they need to grow mentally and physically.