At a recent nutrition conference, I asked dietitians whether they give their kids vitamin and mineral supplements. I assumed that most didn't -- after all, some of these professionals had written books on getting kids to eat nutritious foods. Surely, their boys and girls wouldn't be taking a supplement..
But much to my surprise, every dietitian I spoke with confessed to buying supplements -- even if their child's diet was just a little less than perfect. "My daughter Rebecca, who's 11, makes healthy choices most of the time. I'm giving her a multivitamin for a little extra cushion," says Althea Zanecosky, R.D., a Philadelphia-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Adds Roxanne Moore, R.D., a dietitian for the Maryland Department of Education in Baltimore and the mom of 3-year-old Cameron: "Her diet isn't bad, but I give her a multivitamin every other day just to be sure."
Picky eaters aren't the only kids taking vitamins these days. With scores of studies revealing the consequences of nutrient deficiencies in children -- not getting enough iron results in poor concentration in school; lacking in calcium lowers bone mass -- even kids with healthy diets are using supplements because their parents want to play it safe.
And the kids don't seem to mind. At the very least, products are fruit-flavored and shaped like popular cartoon characters. Some supplements even look and taste like gumballs, gummy bears, or jelly beans. From November 2001 to November 2002, sales of vitamins and minerals for kids grew almost 10% in natural product supermarkets, according to SPINS, a research firm based in San Francisco. USDA data show that roughly half of 4- to 8-year-olds -- the largest number ever -- take a nutritional supplement.
But given the recent research, is such widespread use warranted? "Probably not," says Robert Baker, M.D., a Buffalo-based member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' nutrition committee. "If you look hard enough, you'll find a flaw in most every child's diet. But most kids get enough nutrients; for them there is no benefit to a multivitamin." In fact, the AAP suggests multivitamins only for kids who come from a low-income family, follow a vegetarian diet, take part in a weight-loss program, or have an eating disorder, a disease that affects metabolism, or a poor appetite.