What are vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential for normal growth and nutrition. They are not made by the human body so must be acquired through the diet. Only small quantities are necessary for normal functioning. Vitamins are either fat-soluble (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) or water-soluble (seven types of vitamin B, vitamin C, and folic acid). The body is able to store fat-soluble vitamins but not water-soluble vitamins, therefore these need to be replenished more often through the diet. Deficiencies of vitamins, especially over time, can cause adverse effects. However, overdose or mega-doses of vitamins can also cause toxicity. In general a well-balanced diet with a variety of food groups provides enough essential vitamins.
What are minerals?
Minerals are also compounds that the body needs for normal growth and nutrition. Examples of essential minerals that are needed in slightly larger quantities are calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Some other minerals are required only in very small quantities (trace minerals), for example iron, zinc, and copper. Minerals also need to be provided through diet.
Where do babies get vitamins and minerals?
All babies receive an injection of vitamin K at birth because the fetus does not absorb fat-soluble vitamins well and vitamin K is not absorbed well through breastmilk or formula. This vitamin K supplement prevents a dangerous deficiency of vitamin K in the newborn period which can lead to severe bleeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends daily supplementation with 400 IU of vitamin D for babies who are exclusively breastfed. This is available as oral vitamin D drops. Babies will receive their other essential vitamins and minerals through breastmilk or formula for the first several months. The baby will have iron stores from the mother for the first few months of life. Then between 4 and 6 months of age babies can start on iron-fortified cereals which will help maintain iron stores. Premature babies may require iron supplementation earlier.
Where do kids get vitamins and minerals?
Ideally, kids should get their vitamins and minerals from the food they eat. A reasonable diet that generally includes dairy, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meat will provide enough. The exception to this is vitamin D, which is also absorbed from sunlight through the skin. The question of whether or not to give a child a multivitamin comes up frequently. For the most part, multivitamins in healthy kids with reasonable diets is not necessary. A recent study highlighted in the media even suggests that many supplements may be providing more than recommended daily allowances of some vitamins and minerals. For specific cases in which kids have very restricted diets or have underlying medical issues, then a multivitamin should be discussed with the pediatrician. If your child should take a multivitamin, the dosage should not exceed the recommended amount. Many of these are flavored and in colorful packaging that appeals to kids – they should not be treated like candy, as it is possible to overdose. They should be kept out of reach of small children. There are gummy vitamins available as well (these do not contain iron), but they do contain sugar and are not great for teeth.
This website has a good breakdown of many common foods and how many servings of each food group they correspond to.
For very detailed nutrition information on specific foods or ingredients, you can use the search option on the USDA’s list.
How do you know if your child is getting enough of each vitamin and mineral?
In general with a reasonably balanced and overall healthy diet, if your child is growing well and is active, then he or she is getting enough. Below are a few of the more commonly deficient areas to keep an eye on:
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is important for bone health and cell regulation. The recommendations are 400 IU/day for < 1 year old; 600 IU/day for >1 year old. As mentioned above, exclusively breastfed infants will need a supplement until they are eating fortified foods. Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods – fatty fish like salmon, and small amounts in egg yolk and cheese. It is also absorbed through the skin from sunlight (remember that?!) Most of our vitamin D consumption comes from fortified foods such as milk, some yogurts, and some orange juice. 1 cup of milk contains about 120 IU of vitamin D. So, not surprisingly, it is hard for kids to meet their daily vitamin D requirements.
Calcium: Calcium is also important for bone health. Calcium requirements vary by age: 200 mg/day for birth-6 months old; 260 mg/day for 7-12 months old; 700 mg/day for 1-3 years; 1000 mg/day for 4-8 years old; 1300 mg/day for 9-18 years. Calcium is found in dairy products, broccoli, some seafood, as well as in fortified breads, cereals, and orange juice. 1 cup of milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Calcium given with vitamin D helps the body absorb the vitamin D better.
Iron: Iron is important for cell function in the body and helps the body store and use oxygen. The daily recommendations are: 0.27mg/day for 1-6 months old; 11mg/day for 7-12 months old; 7mg/day from 1-3 years old; 10 mg/day from 4-8 years old; 8mg/day from 9-13 years old; 11mg/day for males ages 14-18; 15mg/day for females ages 14-18 years. Iron is found in meats, dark green leafy vegetables, and legumes. Iron can also be found in fortified cereals, oatmeal, and breads.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is important for healthy nerves and blood cells. The daily requirements are: 0.4 mcg/day for 0-6 months old; 0.5 mcg/day for 7-12 months old; 0.9 mcg/day for 1-3 years old; 1.2 mcg/day for 4-8 years old; 1.8 mcg/day for 9-13 years old; 2.4 mcg/day for 14-18 years old. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, so is lacking in vegetarian diets. Vegetarians can get some through fortified cereals and soy products, but may need a vitamin supplement.