We should always encourage children to eat a balanced and varied diet including calcium rich foods, lean proteins, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables as the best way to get all the nutrients they need. Of course each child has their own unique needs and health issues that may require highly specific recommendations. But, generally speaking, if you feel your child is not eating enough variety to meet their needs then a basic multivitamin is safe and can help fill in nutritional "gaps". There are two additional nutrients that may be of even greater importance to supplement: omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Many children simply do not consume fish or get adequate sunlight to meet vitamin D needs throughout the year.
Omega 3 fatty acids play a critical role in brain and eye development, learning, and mood with low levels associated with depression, learning and behavior problems, and ADHD. Many children do not like fish or have concerns about mercury contamination in fish. In this case, taking fish oil supplements is actually a safer choice than frequently consuming certain types of fish. Tests done by ConsumerLab.com on omega-3 fatty acid supplements showed that all but two were fresh and all contained their claimed amounts of EPA and DHA. None of the products were found to contain detectable levels of mercury. By comparison, mercury levels in fish generally range from 10 ppb to 1,000 ppb, depending on the fish. In addition, none of the products contained unsafe levels of PCBs except one intended for pet use. PCBs have been found in several fish including farm-raised salmon.
In young children under age 5, DHA is the fatty acid of most importance. Many products are now fortified with DHA including juices, milk, and yogurt or chewable DHA supplements. Infants can receive DHA via mom's breast milk if she is supplementing her diet with DHA or through fortified formula. At around 4 or 5 years of age children can begin to increase their intake of EPA. There is no RDA established for omega 3 fats and recommendations can vary depending on the specific needs of the child. For general health follow the label recommendations or consult with a knowledgeable health professional. In 2002 the Food and Nutrition Board set "Adequate Intake" levels for the omega 3 fat ALA, but did not set levels for EPA and DHA. A small amount of EPA and DHA can be made from ALA. Flax and walnuts are rich sources of ALA.
Vitamin D is crucial to bone development and immune system function and has been associated with a reduced risk of various cancers and autoimmune conditions including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. It also helps reduce the risk of colds and influenza. Researchers are now looking at its role in autism, depression, and other related disorders.
Many children simply do not consume enough vitamin D through food or sunlight exposure, especially in the winter months. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children receive 400 IU/day of vitamin D3 starting in the first few days of life. This is double previous recommendations. Some health experts recommend even higher doses during the winter months. 1000-2000 IU/day would be a safe dose for most school age children during the winter months. The "Tolerable Upper Intake Levels" have been set at 1000IU/day for 0-6months, 1500IU/day for 7-12months, 2500IU/day for 1-3 years, 3000IU/day for 4-8 years, and 4000IU/day for children over 9.
If they are receiving adequate sunshine, such as during the summer months, then additional supplementation may not be necessary. Do not exceed these amounts unless testing has been done and higher dose supplements are indicated per your healthcare professional's recommendations.
If your child has any special health concerns please consult with a knowledgeable health professional before adding or changing any dietary supplements.
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