By Dr Roslyn Giglia, dietitian and child health researcher, Telethon Kids Institute

Supplements remain contentious. Despite advice they are generally not needed, Australians consume billions of dollars’ worth each year

Children not on a restricted diet or without a medical condition should not need supplements. They need the essential vitamins and minerals to support their growth and development but this is best achieved through a well-balanced diet. All essential vitamins and minerals are important but iron (brain development) and calcium (growth and bones) are especially so for children.

The best way for children (and adults) to get all their vitamin and mineral needs is through the organic forms found in foods, as these are the most highly absorbed. Manufactured supplements cannot replicate this and are not as well absorbed.

Children’s food need not be organically grown, it just has to be eaten. This is often the most difficult job for a parent and it can seem easier to give a sugary coated vitamin jube. Children regularly given supplements instead of a well-balanced meal might, wrongly, learn that there are shortcuts to health.

Parents should give their children lots of variety and encourage repeated tastes of unfamiliar or disliked foods. It takes around nine times of offering a food before a child might actually try it, so even a small bite, nibble or lick can help. I don’t recommend parents giving a supplement to their child after an uneaten meal. Instead, encourage them to eat some of the meal. If they have a variety of foods (fruit and vegetables, breads, cereals, meats and dairy) daily, they will still be getting enough nutrients.

There are some rare exceptions where children may need supplements. Those on a vegetarian or vegan diet will struggle to get enough iron. It is very unlikely this will be for medical reasons and I recommend parents include meat in their child’s diet until they mature and can make their own choices about eating meat without having their growth and development affected by iron deficiency in the developing years.

Food allergies or intolerance’s may be why children avoid certain foods (e.g. dairy) making it difficult to get adequate vitamins and minerals for growth (e.g. calcium). However, any food allergy needs to be medically diagnosed, as removing foods without good evidence of an allergy may inadvertently create an unnecessary deficiency.

Chronic diseases such as coeliac or Crohn’s also need to be diagnosed before different foods are removed from a child’s diet. In coeliac disease, thiamine (vit B1), riboflavin (vit B2), pyridoxine (vit B6) and folic acid are potential nutrient deficiencies that can occur due to the removal of grain based (e.g. wheat oats barley) foods containing gluten.

Author competing interests- nil relevant disclosures, Questions? Contact the author via roslyn.giglia@telthonkids.org.au

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