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Essential Vitamins and Minerals for Children

iStock_vit_and_min.jpgVitamins and minerals are substances that are found in foods we eat.  Our body needs them to work properly, to fight infections and to enable children grow and develop just like they should.

Deficiencies of some vitamins and minerals can lead to serious problems as each vitamin plays a special role.

The good news is that if your child is eating a wide range of fresh foods, including vegetables, fruit, dairy, lean meat/fish and grains, then they will probably be getting all the vitamins and minerals they need.

Important vitamins and minerals for children

  • Calcium

Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth to provide structure and strength. Calcium is not widely distributed in the food groups and ensuring an adequate dietary intake for children can be more difficult than for other nutrients.  Sources - Milk, milk-based foods and dairy products are major sources of calcium. Milk should be full fat up to the age of two. Other sources include; tinned fish like sardines and salmon; tofu; eggs; green leafy vegetables; dried fruit like raisins, apricots and figs; pulses; seeds and nuts.

  • Iron

Iron is absolutely essential for infants (from 6 months), toddlers and children to ensure healthy mental and physical development. Without it, the body can’t make haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. Iron also has a role in assisting in brain development, learning ability and helps to fight infection. Iron needs are greatest during periods of rapid growth such as early childhood.

Iron is found in two forms – haem (from animal tissues) and non-haem (plant foods). Sources of haem iron are lean red meat (beef and lamb), chicken, pork, fish and liver/kidney. Non-haem iron can be sourced from fortified cereals, follow-on formula, green vegetables, dried fruit, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans) and wholemeal bread.

Haem iron is more readily absorbed by the body than non-haem – approximately 25% of haem iron is utilised by the body while only 5% of non-haem iron is able to be absorbed. The absorption of iron is influenced by other components in the diet – for instance vitamin C and meat/fish/poultry have been shown to increase the uptake when eaten with non-haem sources.  By combining haem and non-haem iron sources in a meal you can ensure your child is getting enough iron. Diluted fruit juice and/or fruit/vegetables high in vitamin C will also boost iron absorption.

Your child's requirements for iron vary based on his or her age and growth. At birth, a baby has a natural supply of iron – this begins to reduce between 4 and 6 months, from this age the diet is required to provide the required iron.  

A baby at 7 months requires as much iron as an adult.   Due to the demands of growth, toddlers and pre-schoolers also require iron in their diet everyday.
  • Iodine

Iodine is essential for healthy brain development, before birth and into childhood - it is particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding mums. Unfortunately New Zealand soil is naturally very low in iodine. For years, iodine has been added to salt but due to the reduction of iodised salt intake (people choosing to cut salt from their Child's diet or using other varieties of salt without the added iodine – sea or rock salt) many New Zealand children are now at risk of iodine deficiency.

To address this, new regulations are to come into from September 2009 which will make it compulsory for commercially produced bread to be made with iodised salt (there are some exceptions for example organic varieties of bread). Other good natural sources include - seafood, milk products, eggs.

More on vitamins

Your body is one powerful machine, capable of doing all sorts of things by itself. But one thing it can't do is make vitamins. That's where food comes in. Your body is able to get the vitamins it needs from the foods you eat because different foods contain different vitamins.

The key to getting enough vitamins is to eat a balanced diet with a variety of whole foods.

Yum Yum Tip

  • It's easier for your child to make good food choices if you offer a healthy assortment of food from an early age. One way to encourage variety, add interest and expand the range of nutrients in your child’s diet is for your family to try foods from different cultures and with different ingredients. This makes the food experience fun for the entire family. See the Fun Food Guide for some more great ideas.
  • Food play and educational food games are also a great way to teach children about the importance of a healthy balanced diet and nutrition.

There are 13 vitamins your body needs. They are vitamins A, C, D, E, K and the B vitamin group. Now, let's look more closely at the vitamins a child needs (from A to K) and some of the food sources:

  • Vitamin A

This vitamin plays a really big part in eyesight. It's great for night vision, and it helps you see in colour, from the brightest yellow to the darkest purple. In addition, it helps you grow properly, immunity, and aids in healthy skin.

Foods which are rich in vitamin A – liver, milk products, fish oil, egg yolks

N.B - Your body can also create vitamin A from beta-carotene. You can get beta-carotene from orange fruit and vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables (carrots, spinach, rockmelon, apricots, mangos, peaches) and oats. Beta-carotene has the added advantage of being an anti-oxidant.

  • The B Vitamins

There's more than one B vitamin. Here's the list: B1, B2, B6, B12, niacin, folic acid, biotin, and pantothenic acid.  The B vitamins are important in metabolic activity and all about providing energy. This group of vitamins is also involved in other vital bodily functions such as in making red blood cells (which carry oxygen throughout your body), digestion, and the nervous system. B Vitamins are crucial and required by every part of your body.

Foods which are rich in vitamin B - whole grains,(such as cereals, wheat and oats), fish/seafood, yeast, poultry and meats, eggs, dairy products, (like milk, cheese and yogurt), leafy green vegetables, beans/peas and spreads (vegemite).

  • Vitamin C

Vitamin C is essential for body tissues, healthy skin, it boosts the immune system and assists with healing. Vitamin C also helps the body to absorb iron, so aim for a good balance of each on the plate, or serve a piece of fruit after meals.

Foods which are rich in vitamin C - It’s found in citrus fruits, berries, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, capsicum, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables.

Note - Vitamin C can be destroyed in cooking, so serve vegetables raw or cook only lightly. It also diminishes over time – frozen vegetables are better than fresh ones that have been sitting around for days.

  • Vitamin D

No bones about it . . . vitamin D is the vitamin you need for strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium and therefore is essential for the development of bones and teeth. The most obvious source is sunlight; other food sources are listed below.

Foods which are rich in vitamin D - cod-liver oil, oily fish (sardines, herring, salmon, tuna), full-fat milk and milk products, eggs and fortified cereal or milk.

Vitamin D is sometimes suggested as a supplement for breastfeeding mothers if they do not receive adequate sun exposure. Women who live in cooler climates and wear clothing that covers their entire body, should seek further professional advice in relation to this.

  • Vitamin E

Everybody needs Vitamin E, it protects cells against damaging free radicals, assists with immune function, DNA repair and has a role in the formation of red blood cells. This hard working vitamin is also a powerful anti-oxidant .

Foods which are rich in vitamin E - whole grains, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, sardines, egg yolks, soya beans, vegetable oil, nuts and seeds.

  • Vitamin K

Vitamin K is known as the clotting vitamin, because without it blood would not clot.  In some countries (including New Zealand), parents can choose to have injections of Vitamin K given to their newborn baby. Vitamin K is used as a preventative measure to prevent late-onset hemorrhagic (bleeding) disease.

Foods which are rich in vitamin K - leafy green vegetables, dairy products, broccoli, soybean oil and cereals.

  • Vitamin Supplements

Generally speaking, eating fresh foods is a better way of getting vitamins and minerals than taking supplements. Most experts agree that supplements are not necessary if a child is having a variety of foods and a balanced diet. Children who aren't eating a wide range of nutritional foods may benefit from eating foods fortified with vitamins and minerals – for example, soy milk and breakfast cereals. Excessive amounts of vitamins can be harmful. If you do decide to give or take a supplement, always seek professional advice and be careful not to exceed the recommended dosage.

Note - a vegan diet that is suitable for adults may not be nutritious enough for the growing bodies of infants and children. You will need to compensate for the lack of vitamins, such as vitamin B12 which is essential for brain development and can only be found in animal products. A vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs is fine for most children. For more information on Vegetarian Diets for children, click here.

Yum Yum Tip –

it is not uncommon for parents to underestimate just how much their child is eating. A food diary is a really good way to really understand exactly what and how much your child is eating.



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