It used to be that adults were the only ones who had to be concerned with supplementing their diets with a daily vitamin. But now that overly processed junk masquerading as real food takes up residence on our kids’ plates at most meals, it’s time children begin taking supplements as well.
Not surprisingly, it’s fairly easy to find supplements for children these days. From Whole Foods to the neighborhood grocery store and even Wal-Mart, there are tons of outlets with rows and rows of pills and tablets and powders just begging for some real estate in your medicine cabinet. It can be overwhelming, sure, and that’s exactly why we talked to experts to determine the top three supplements your kiddo really needs to ensure that they stay healthy this winter and beyond.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The term “omega-3” refers to a group of three healthy fats—ALA, EPA and DHA. The fats are considered essential, especially for young children. But because our bodies don’t produce omega-3s naturally, we need to get them from our diet. “The number one supplement [kids need] is fish oil,” says renowned health expert and creator of the Zone Diet, Dr. Barry Sears. “The young child’s brain is rapidly developing and requires a constant supply of omega-3 fatty acids for optimal development. The omega-3 fatty acids will also improve attention focus and help soothe behavior issues.”
While all omega-3s are important, DHA and EPA are considered most beneficial. (In Norway, the government requires all newborns to begin taking 800 mg of omega-3s within seven days of birth, adds Sears.) They’re found only in fatty fish like salmon, however, so for kids who don’t each much fish, supplementing with fish oil is recommended. There are some vegetarian-friendly omega-3 supplements made from algae, which is actually where fish get their stores of DHA and EPA. Flax oils are also an option for veggie kids, but plant sources of omega-3s generally only provide ALA, which is then partially converted to DHA and EPA in the body.
After Omega-3s, a broad-range multivitamin/multimineral is the next line of defense for kids who are likely not getting enough nutrients from their diets. “A well-designed multivitamin and mineral that supplies all the essential nutrients in a range of 100 to 300 percent of the daily value will cover the needs for most children,” says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
Somer recommends parents choose a multi that contains vitamins A, D, and K, all of the B vitamins (vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, niacin and folic acid), as well as the trace minerals (chromium, copper, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc). It’s also important to ensure that the levels of each nutrient in the multi are balanced. Look for even levels of daily requirements of the different nutrients, “not one that supplies 2 percent of one nutrient, 50 percent of another and 600 percent of another,” adds Somer.
An added bonus, says Sears, is a multi that contains polyphenols, the compounds that give blueberries, strawberries and other fruits and veggies their bright colors. “[Polyphenols] are important in promoting gut health and are powerful anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory agents,” adds Spears. “They are found in low concentrations in fruits and vegetables, but can be purified to very high levels as supplements.” Polyphenols are especially important for kids who struggle to meet their daily produce requirement.
Kids who eat plenty of fruits and veggies and/or fortified foods, like cereals and milk, may only need to take a half-dose, if at all, says Dr. Andrea Paul, Chief Medial Officer of BoardVitals. She recommends using a calculator to determine your child’s needs.
Each time your child is prescribed a round of antibiotics to battle an ear infection or a bout of strep throat, millions of good bacteria are killed in the intestines, right along with the bad bacteria that are causing the illness. And since around 80 percent of our immune system is located in our gut, low levels of those good bacteria can lead to a host of issues, including allergies, eczema and general tummy troubles.
“Probiotics are the good bacteria; they are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal system,” says Dr. Kiera Smialek, a licensed naturopathic physician at the Arizona Natural Health Center. She recommends 5-10 billion CFUs per day for children and teens and around 4 billion per day for infants and babies. If a particular condition is being treated—like diarrhea, for instance—the daily dosage may be increased.
Smialek also suggests that parents start supplementing with probiotics early, especially if their child was delivered via cesarean section. “Our first dose of good bacteria typically comes during birth as we pass through the birth canal,” Smialek explains. “We are inoculated with a large amount of helpful bacteria that begins the adequate functioning of our gastrointestinal system as well as our immune system. Kids who are born via C-section do not get this first dose, so supplementing them beginning at a young age is even more important.
And one more point on probiotics: they typically need to be refrigerated to maintain their effectiveness.
Even though we’ve narrowed the list of supplements to three, there are still numerous options within each category. The key when shopping is to pay attention to the back of the label – not the front. “Can you believe the claims on a label? Usually not,” says Somer. “Claims that a product is ‘complete,’ ‘balanced,’ ‘high potency’ or ‘specially formulated,’ have little to do with the real formulations, and claims that a supplement will cure, treat or even prevent any health condition are more hype than fact. Return to the guidelines above by reading the back of the label.”