More Parents Are Giving Dietary Supplements to Kids — Beware of Risks

As a personal trainer and nutritionist, dad-of-two Frank Cammalleri takes meal times seriously. Dinner is a colorful mix of carrots, collard greens, and onions, stir-fried with chicken — a simple dish packed with protein and vitamins.

But his 10-year-old son, not so much.

“My youngest, yeah, he was a little bit fickle and a little picky to my taste,” Cammalleri told Insider. “Not totally what I expected.”

Cammalleri, out of concern his son wasn’t getting enough vitamins and nutrients from his diet, put him on a regular dietary supplement plan a couple years ago. “Wherever I see what he’s not eating, I try to fill in that gap,” the father said.

Cammalleri isn’t the only parent turning to supplements. Dietary supplement consumption in the US hits an all-time high, and new survey data suggests parents are key buyers.

A recent poll by the University of Michigan found half of a nationally representative sample of 1,251 parents polled said they rely on supplements, and a recent study from Germany found the prevalence of medicine and supplement use in kids increased between 2014 to 2019.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a third of children and adolescents take dietary supplements, citing 2018 nationwide survey data.

A child’s diet can impact their weight, bone density, eyesight, mood, and a variety of other health markers, and Mayo Clinic recommends feeding children a nutrient-dense diet with limited added sugar and saturated fats.

Using supplements to achieve a balanced diet is not a terrible idea, Dr. Mona Amin, a board certified pediatrician in Florida who has not worked with Cammalleri, told Insider. But, Amin added, it’s not something she would recommend lightly. Not only is there little to no evidence that many supplements work, there are also real risks associated with some pills if you don’t get the dosage right, especially in children.

Carb-heavy school lunches and the desire to create a healthy relationship with food are pushing parents to supplements

Christina Chandra, a freelance food and health writer based in Vancouver, Canada, aims to give her kids balanced meals while teaching them to have a positive relationship with food — but the two goals coincided when they became picky eaters upon entering pre-school.

Chandra’s daughter tried “every fruit under the sun” but couldn’t stand veggies, and her son was the opposite. Plus, she tries to let her kids eat what they want at birthday parties and during school.

So, Chandra began her kids on multivitamins when they started elementary school to make sure they eat what they want and while getting their nutrients.

“I’m not going to always force them to eat everything, because I don’t want them to have that negative relationship with food,” Chandra told Insider. “In an ideal world, they’re eating X amount of fruits and vegetables and protein and calcium, [but] I can see that’s not always happening.”

Cammalleri said he began his kids on supplements after feeling like school lunches do an inadequate job providing nutritious meals.

“I see that their menu is mostly carbs,” Cammalleri said. “I think it’s preventing my kids from learning more than what they should and what they’re capable of learning in school.”

Registered dietitian Alyson Martinez told Insider she understands the desire for parents to give kids dietary supplements, as “it’s rare to find a child who eats well at school lunch.” A recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University found even school lunches that meet federal nutrient guidelines lack the daily recommended calorie, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber intake for children.

But concerns over school lunches should not make parents beeline to the supplement department, Martinez said: Kids can still meet their nutrient goals with breakfast, dinner, and snacks over the course of the week.

A pediatrician’s warning to parents: Supplements are not regulated, and you need to be careful with dosing

Amin said, ideally, healthy children need only a varied diet — or one with diverse fruits, vegetables, spices, and probiotics — proper sleep, hydration, exercise, and time in the sun.

Pediatricians will sometimes recommend a daily multivitamin to children who do not like eating a variety of fruits and veggies, Amin said.

“If a family really believes they’ve done their research and they want to give it, I’m not against it,” Amin told Insider. “I just want them to know that it is something that’s going into their child’s body and they want to weigh their benefit and risk of that situation.

However, given that the supplement industry is not FDA-regulated, Amin cautioned that there is no regulation ensuring the product’s safety, or even that it’s effective. A 2017 Consumer Lab study found nearly half of all gummy vitamins have significantly different levels of nutrients than the label says they do.

As for other popular supplements like


vitamin D

,


magnesium

, and fish oil, Amin said very few robust studies have been done to determine what dosage is right for children. Without that information, parents can run the risk of overdosing their kids with vitamins. Too much vitamin D, for instance, can lead to confusion and gastrointestinal problems, while vitamin A toxicity can lead to long-term bone and liver damage.

“When we don’t know something in the medical community, parents need to make their own decision, understanding benefit and risk, and the fact that the medical literature is incomplete,” Amin said.

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