Remember that a healthy diet is the foundation of their nutrients
As a parent, it is important to know what supplements to give your child, in which combinations and when, says Professor Kerryn Phelps, who is also a GP. “Supplements will never replace a healthy, balanced diet of fresh whole foods in a child with no problems with their digestion. That presumes that children are eating healthy diets with all the essential nutrients they need and they are able to digest and absorb those nutrients. Of course, that is not always the case.”
Look for natural food substitutes if your child has nutritional gaps in his diet
Prof Quak says that the most important consideration is that the supplement should not cause harm. “An overdose of fat-soluble vitamins can be harmful to the body. When a child is not consuming a certain food item, it is always better to consider alternative food sources, rather than use supplements. To give an example, a child with lactose intolerance would not be taking milk, and thus he may have inadequate calcium intake. Instead of rushing to give him a calcium supplement, do consider letting the child consume other calcium-rich source foods, including low-lactose milk.”
Don't give supplements just because all the other parents are doing it
Many parents give their children food supplements, which may not be necessary. “It’s more important to inculcate the correct eating habits when they are young: Avoiding processed foods as far as possible, having an adequate intake of fruits and fibre daily, and eating a wide variety of foods daily,” says Prof Quak.
“Natural foods have different colours, and it is advisable to consume as many coloured foods as possible every day, and not be confined to eating green and white foods alone. Kids should eat foods in a rainbow of colours if possible.”
Some kids with medical conditions will require supplements - with a doctor's advice
There are many medical conditions where specific dietary supplements are recommended, and should be guided by patients’ doctors, says Prof Quak. “Some children do have problems with digestion because of diseases of their gut. Others have food allergies or intolerances (such as gluten or lactose) and their diets may need to exclude a lot of nutrients,” says Prof Phelps. “Children with chronic medical conditions will have higher nutrient needs than their diets can provide. Some pharmaceuticals will reduce the absorption of essential nutrients.”
Supplements are also prescribed in the same way as pharmaceutical medicine for the treatment of specific conditions, such as attention deficit hypersensitivity disorder, where supplements may be used in preference to consuming medication.
Consult your paediatrician if your child is on a vegetarian diet
Children on a vegetarian diet are at risk of a number of deficiencies, particularly protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron and zinc. Thus, parents need to be very well informed about the nutritional content of foods.
The decision about whether a supplement will benefit a child is not just about making up for a presumed dietary deficiency.