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Evan is refusing to eat, again. And all Madison has consumed in three days is plain macaroni and cheese. When the chance of your child gobbling up a rainbow of healthy foods is as rare as, well, spotting a rainbow, who wouldn’t want to serve up a Scooby-Doo! vitamin chew to take nutrition off the list of worries? Only trouble is, supplements aren’t a real solution.
Despite the booming business — sales of pediatric vitamins and daily supplements grew 12 percent to $660 million in the U.S. last year — Tiffani Hayes, Director of Pediatric Clinical Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, swears children’s vitamins simply aren’t necessary in most cases. “They provide a sense of security for parents,” Hayes tells Yahoo Parenting. “But children have an innate sense of what they need to intake. Leave them to their own instincts of how much they should eat, and provide a variety of nutritious foods, and they’ll eat enough to keep themselves going in the variety necessary to meet their nutrient needs.”
Parents’ goal then, says Hayes, is to keep pushing meals resembling the USDA’s model made up of half a plate of veggies, with lean protein, whole grains and fruit filling up the rest — not pills. That jibes with The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has ruled “a diet based on the Food Guide Pyramid provides adequate amounts of all the vitamins a child needs.”
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Multivitamins are only really essential when kids are on a restrictive diet or have extremely picky eating habits, explains Hayes. Take a couple raising their children vegan. Without meat or eggs, she says, it’s more difficult for them to get their daily allowance of vitamin A (which promotes growth and development as well as tissue repair) and B (important for energy production and metabolism). “In that case, a complete vitamin takes that worry off the plate, figuratively and literally.”
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One supplement exception is Vitamin D. Now that sunscreen and time indoors has limited the amount of D we get from skin converting sunshine, most children need to add it in to their diet. Milk fortified with D is an effective fix, but kids who drink less than 32 ounces still need a vitamin D supplement to help them meet the recommended daily amount set by the USDA.
In some cases, multivitamins may even be a bad thing for kids. And we’re not talking about the sugar content of those sweet Flintstone’s, Pokémon or Bugs Bunny children’s chews — none of which are regulated by the FDA by the way. (Hayes estimates the amount of sugar added is less than you’d find in a couple of Lifesaver candies and far less than a serving of soda or juice.) Many supplements marketed for kids contain a higher-than-recommended daily dose of individual vitamins, according to a January report in JAMA Pediatrics, and that can cause a host of health issues including nausea and headaches.
“Vitamins are always the second-best solution compared to getting nutrients from the foods themselves,” says Hayes. Calcium, for example, is much better absorbed in milk, and a vitamin chew doesn’t offer the fiber and antioxidant benefit that real foods also provide. “Even though kids may be reluctant to eat some foods,” she adds, “childhood is the stage of development where you can — and should — instill good eating habits.”