Vitamins and minerals: the basics
The best way for your child to get enough vitamins and minerals is by eating a wide variety of fresh foods, including:
- grain food – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
- reduced-fat dairy food – milk, yoghurt and cheese
- meat, fish, chicken, eggs and legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on).
Our bodies absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients better when they come from food, rather than from vitamin and mineral supplements.
Where to get your vitamins and minerals
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
If your child isn’t getting enough vitamins or minerals over a period of time, this is often called a ‘deficiency’. It means there’s a shortage of one or more vitamins and minerals in your child’s body.
Common vitamin deficiencies
In Australia, the vitamins that kids are most likely to be low on are these two:
- Vitamin D: this vitamin comes in small amounts from foods, but the body mainly makes vitamin D from sunlight. Not getting enough vitamin D can lead to rickets and bone disease. A baby’s vitamin D level depends on the mother’s level in pregnancy and then on how much sunlight and food with vitamin D the baby gets.
- Vitamin B12: this vitamin is needed for blood and brain growth. Some breastfed babies don’t get enough vitamin B12 if their mothers have low levels of vitamin B12 (people who follow a vegan diet can find it hard to get enough B12).
Common mineral deficiencies
Australian kids are most commonly deficient in the following minerals:
- Calcium: one survey has shown that more than half of Australian teenage boys and girls don’t have enough calcium in their diets.
- Iodine: not enough iodine can cause goitre and other conditions such as mental retardation. Most bakery and supermarket bread is now made with iodised salt, which will give most people enough iodine in their diets.
- Iron: children might be low in iron if they’re vegans or vegetarians, drink a lot of milk and don’t have much appetite for other foods, have coeliac disease, go through a growth spurt, or have gastrointestinal blood loss.
- Zinc: toddlers who have a limited diet for a long time, as well as vegans and vegetarians, are most likely to not get enough zinc. A zinc deficiency can slow down your child’s growth.
How different diets can affect vitamin and mineral intake
If your child has a restricted diet, you might need to be extra careful about making sure he gets all the vitamins and minerals he needs.
For example, vegetarian or vegan diets can make it more difficult to get enough iron. Food allergies or intolerances can make it harder for your child to get enough calcium. With careful planning and a bit of research on other ways to get these nutrients into your child’s diet, you can get around these issues.
If your child has a chronic disease that affects how she absorbs food – such as coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease – the vitamins and minerals in a standard healthy diet might not be enough for her. Your GP or a dietitian can help you work out what you need to do to.
Children who eat lots of ‘sometimes’ foods, like sweet drinks, chips and cakes, might fill up on those and not have enough room for the foods that give them essential vitamins and minerals. You could try limiting sometimes foods to special occasions.
Vitamin and mineral supplements
Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals – more isn’t necessarily better.
Large amounts of some vitamins can actually be dangerous. For example, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A build up in the body if they’re taken in excessive amounts, whereas water-soluble vitamins can be passed out of the body in wee. Large doses of some minerals can also cause problems.
If you’re concerned that your child’s diet could be leaving him low on some vitamins or minerals, and he isn’t able to eat more food containing the vitamins and minerals he needs, see your doctor or a dietitian for advice. They might suggest taking an appropriate supplement.
Note that vitamin and mineral supplements can interact with medications. It’s important to let your doctor know if your child takes a vitamin or mineral supplement when she’s prescribed any medications.