When it comes to vitamin supplements for our children, are we being conned into spending money on unnecessary products that could, in fact, be harmful or are we missing a great opportunity to help them succeed in life?

Mother Nature is hard on us parents in the modern age. We want our children to thrive, but when it comes to eating, pressure and anxiety can creep in that they’re not eating enough and their development will be impacted. It’s simply not enough to know that every child is different and grows at a different rate. If your child is the smallest in the class or falls behind developmentally, it is impossible not to question whether it’s your fault and look for a quick solution like a daily multivitamin. I have always had some cynicism niggling at me that the food industry and health food manufacturers aren’t regulated heavily enough and take opportunities to prey on the Worried Well. With this distrust, I’m not easily duped by marketers, but a parent with a super fussy eater and a concern about their child’s health and well-being is bound to fall victim to the clever marketing techniques employed by the industry and find themselves with a cupboard full of expensive health food supplements they simply don’t need and may, in fact, be harmful to their children. In a world that’s noisy with both the hard sell and cynics like me, how can conscientious parents make the right decision about vitamin supplements?

LET’S ASK THE EXPERTS

‘Whilst I can understand that giving your child some ‘background’ or ‘top-up’ vitamin or mineral supplementation can be reassuring, in the majority of children there is simply no need,’ says The Children’s Dietitian, Lucy Upton. ‘Dietary sources of vitamins, minerals & trace elements (with the exception of Vitamin D) are likely to be sufficient. I would always encourage parents, where possible to aim to optimise their child’s diet first if there are concerns about nutritional adequacy. In cases of extreme fussy eating or food allergies or intolerances, vitamin and mineral supplementation can be beneficial,’ explains Lucy ‘I would usually recommend that these children are assessed by a Paediatric Dietitian who can support optimisation through diet wherever possible, and guide on the most appropriate supplementation based on that child’s individual needs.’

OPTIMISING DIET BEFORE GIVING SUPPLEMENTS

There’s a danger that giving supplements before ‘optimising diet’ can bypass the valuable process of trying to add more whole foods into the family menu. Continuously offering a diverse range of foods from all food groups will provide a spectrum of potential benefits to everyone in the family. Baby and Child Nutritionist, Charlotte Stirling-Reed, blogs about ‘making the most out of meals’ and encourages additions to standard foods to bump up their nutritional value. Adding ingredients like ground nuts and seeds, nut butters, eggs, yoghurt and cheese wherever possible will give your regular meals the boost they really need to make them more nourishing.

And if you have a really fussy eater who struggles with main meals, maximising the nutritional value of snacks can really give you the opportunity to boost your child’s intake. The key is to dodge ultra-processed foods high in salt and sugar, and make each snack a healthy mini-meal of whole foods such as breadsticks, veg sticks and cheese cubes. Read my blog about snacking if you fancy giving your snacks a facelift. I certainly comfort myself in the fact that my kids ravage the fruit bowl like they’ve never been fed and my regular snacks of crudités and hummus are scoffed even if their evening meals are often rejected.

Further comfort can be taken by the news that many parents don’t realise that commonly consumed foods have been fortified in the UK since the 1940s. White flour is fortified with calcium, iron, B vitamins. Margarines are fortified with vitamins A and D, and some breakfast cereals are too – many families are eating a far richer diet than they give themselves credit for. While breakfast cereals get a bad rap for their sugar and salt content, they account for a really decent intake of fibre, iron, calcium and vitamins for your family. Fortification of breakfast cereals is only voluntary though, so choose carefully by looking at the food label next time you’re stocking up. If you’re unsure, The Nutrition Consultant, Charlotte Radcliffe has a really helpful Instagram post on her analysis of breakfast cereals here.

GOVERNMENT RECOMMENDATIONS

Having said all this, The UK Department of Health and Social Care does actually recommend giving specific supplements rather than a multivitamin ‘For your younger children under 5 years, the DoH currently recommend daily Vitamins A, C and D,’ Lucy advises ‘For children over 5 years, I tend to recommend some daily Vitamin D (at least during the darker months between October-March) – usually 10ug/400IU per day.’  

CAN MY CHILD OVERDOSE?

‘For many of the water-soluble vitamins and minerals, if intake from diet meets the body’s need, the extras provided by a multivitamin will simply be excreted,’ explains Lucy ‘Large doses of other vitamins/minerals or over-supplementation do have the potential to be harmful. For example, excessive amounts of Vitamin A (a fat-soluble vitamin which cannot be excreted very easily by the body and is stored in the liver) can lead to toxicity if ingested in large doses. In children, it can be considered easier to do this quite simply because they are smaller.’

‘There is a place for vitamin and mineral supplements in the diet’ says Dietitian, Laura Clark ’But it’s worth remembering that just because something is good for you, more of it doesn’t make it better. In fact large doses of some vitamins, found to have antioxidant properties, have been shown to actually increase disease risk, not lower it. The body is very clever at extracting what it needs from a well balanced diet, so be careful with inflated claims slapped on a bottle by an industry looking to make money.’

DECISION TIME

It’s clear that a multivitamin really isn’t the solution in the majority of cases, but following the government guidelines and supplementing your child’s diet with the specific vitamins A, C & D for the under 5s and just vitamin D for the over 5s is definitely prudent parenting along with offering a rich and varied diet. Looking at Holland and Barrett and Amazon, there are a wide variety of drops, powders and chewy gums that will suit the needs of you and your brood. If you’re worried that your fussy eater has such a limited food intake that you need supplementation beyond this, head to your GP. They will discuss it with you and if you meet the criteria, they will refer you to see a Paediatric Dietitian.

If you have a fussy eater and would like to make changes to your mealtime routines and family dynamics, I run an online course called ReThink Fussy Eating with contributions from many of the UK’s leading experts in the fields of feeding therapy, nutrition, parenting and anxiety. It has achieved incredible results with participants so far and is available to join at any time here.  Mel, mum to an 18-month old took part and said  ‘We joined the ReThink Fussy Eating Online Programme because meal times had become stressful for all of us. I would recommend the programme to any family finding mealtimes challenging. After our month, we believe we are on the path to improving food variety and acceptance. It’s been great to have Alex’s calming influence and advice.’ Join the course today, make little changes to see big results!

CONTRIBUTORS:

Lucy Upton – The Children’s Dietitian – www.thechildrensdietitian.co.uk

Charlotte Stirling-Reed – The Baby and Child Nutritionist – www.srnutrition.co.uk

Charlotte Radcliffe – The Nutrition Consultant -.thenutritionconsultant.org.uk

Laura Clark – Laura Clark Nutrition  – www.lecnutrition.co.uk