Is your child getting the nutrients he or she needs?
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has been tracking Americans’ nutritional gaps since the 1960s. Analysis of this data, as well as reporting done by the United States Department of Agriculture, shows that many American children are missing critical vitamins and minerals in their diets.
Calcium is especially important for children as they grow. It helps form strong bones and teeth, preventing breaks, cavities, and other injuries.
Many children get their daily calcium from milk, but unless they are drinking 3 to 4 glasses per day, they might not be getting enough. Cheese and yogurt also provide high levels of calcium, often with lower levels of fat and sugar than milk.
If your child is lactose-intolerant, look for calcium-fortified nut and rice milks. Many vegetables also have calcium, including broccoli, collards, kale, sweet potatoes, and beans.
Vitamin D plays an essential role in tooth and bone formation by helping the body absorb minerals, including calcium. This helps prevent growth disorders, such as weak bones and rickets. Even if children have plenty of calcium in their diets, their bodies will have trouble using it without enough vitamin D.
Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D; it can also be found in egg yolks, salmon, tuna, soy milk, and mushrooms. And don’t forget to make sure your child is spending time outside; sunlight helps convert vitamin D into the active form that your body actually uses.
Fiber promotes healthy digestion, keeps kids feeling full longer after meals, and slows the rate at which their bodies absorb sugar. It also helps prevent diseases like diabetes.
To make sure your child is getting enough fiber, include plenty of fruits and vegetables in their meals. Fiber is also found in whole grains, such as whole wheat flour, oatmeal, and brown rice. Many breads, cereals, and pastas are made with whole grains; try to select these rather than options made with refined grains and white flour.
The mineral potassium helps control blood pressure and prevent dehydration, helping children stay active. You may have heard that eating a banana will prevent cramps while running — that’s because the potassium in the fruit regulates muscle control, as well as contributing to healthy heart function.
Potassium is generally found in plants; in addition to bananas, your child can get potassium from potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, yams, lima beans, avocado, dried peaches, and apricots. For kids who eat dairy, milk and plain yogurt also have high levels of potassium. Many fish are also good potassium sources, including tuna, salmon, and snapper.
Iron helps your body make red blood cells and build muscles. It is essential during any period of rapid growth, but older children are more likely to be iron deficient than younger ones, particularly adolescent girls.
Most meat contains high levels of iron, including beef, turkey, and pork. If your child doesn’t like meat or is a vegetarian, plant sources include spinach, beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, and oatmeal. Many cereals and breads are also fortified with extra iron.
Vitamin E is an essential part of a healthy immune system, helping your child fight off infections. Though it is rare for children to have a vitamin E deficiency severe enough to cause health problems, most Americans under age 18 are not getting the recommended amount in their diet.
To boost your child’s vitamin E intake, include plenty of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in your family’s diet. Almonds, kiwi, broccoli, mango, peanut butter, and spinach are all excellent sources of vitamin E.
Vitamin A contributes to bone growth, promotes strong vision, and helps your child’s immune system function normally. It also helps the cells in your body grow, particularly your hair, nails, and skin.
Colorful fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin A. Try including carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, bell peppers, apricots, peaches, or mango in your child’s diet to increase vitamin A levels. Most dairy products, such as plain yogurt and cheddar cheese, also contain vitamin A.
If you have a picky eater, it may be difficult for your child to get their vitamins and minerals through diet alone. In that case, research shows that taking multivitamins can provide missing nutrients.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that some vitamin supplements can cause nutrient overdoses in children, which contribute to health problems. If you think your child may need a dietary supplement, always talk to your child’s pediatrician first.
August 17, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN