Is Your Child Eating the Right Food?

Vitamins and minerals, also called micronutrients, perform a range of functions necessary to the healthy development of a child’s body, such as enabling the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances needed for normal growth and development. They also play a vital role in disease prevention and overall well-being. Although the body needs micronutrients in very small amounts, not consuming the recommended dose can lead to severe complications, even life-threatening conditions.

Common Children's Nutrient Deficiencies 

Early childhood (children under 5 years old) is a critical period for growth and development. Nutrient deficiency in children during this vulnerable period is associated with wasting (low weight for height), underweight (low weight for age) and stunting (low height for age). Children have higher nutrient needs to boost growth and development, which is one of the primary reasons nutrient deficiencies are more common in children than adults.

Iron, vitamin A and iodine deficiency are the most common forms of micronutrient malnutrition in children. These deficiencies are also common in pregnant women worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, at least half of children younger than 5 years old worldwide suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In the United States, one in six women is iron deficient during pregnancy.

Some of the most common essential nutrient deficiencies are:

  • Iron deficiency – A lack of iron is the leading cause of anemia or low hemoglobin concentration, causing fatigue, weakness, shortage of breath and dizziness. Severe anemia in pregnant women can result in poor fetal growth, preterm birth, low birth weight and increased risk of death for the mother and the baby. Iron is an essential mineral critical for motor and cognitive development. Consult with a pediatrician before supplementing your child's diet with iron. Too much iron can be harmful to your child's health.

    Iron-rich foods include:
    • Lean meats
    • Fortified cereals
    • Beans
    • Spinach
    • Raisins and other dried fruit
  • Vitamin A deficiency – Children with inadequate vitamin A intake have an increased risk of preventable blindness and death from severe infections, such as diarrhea and measles. Breastfeeding infants and providing vitamin A supplements to children aged 6 months to 5 years can help protect them from vitamin A deficiency.

    Vitamin A-rich foods include:
    • Pumpkin
    • Carrots
    • Squash
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Eggs
  • Iodine deficiency – Severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy can lead to complications, including brain damage, stillbirth, spontaneous abortion and congenital disabilities. Even less severe iodine deficiency may still cause impaired intellectual capacity later in life. Doctors recommend taking supplements daily containing 150 micrograms of iodine for pregnant and breastfeeding women to prevent the adverse effects of iodine deficiency in children. Furthermore, women planning a pregnancy are advised to take daily iodine supplement starting at least three months before pregnancy.

    Iodine-rich foods include:
    • Cereals (pasta and bread)
    • Milk
    • Yogurt
    • Beef, pork and poultry
    • Tomatoes
  • Folate deficiency – Folate (vitamin B9) enables the body to generate new cells every day. Before conception and the earliest days of fetal growth, it is essential to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, in babies. Folic acid is another form of vitamin B9. Women of reproductive age need 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.

    Folate-rich foods include:
    • Spinach
    • Rice
    • Spaghetti
    • Broccoli
    • Avocado
  • Zinc deficiency – Taking the recommended daily amount of zinc helps promote a healthy pregnancy, regulate immune functions and strengthen the body against infectious diseases, such as diarrhea and pneumonia. It also increases growth and weight gain among infants and young children. Giving children foods rich in zinc is important when they are about 6 months old to boost their overall wellness.

    Zinc-rich foods include:
    • Fortified cereals
    • Beef and pork
    • Yogurt
    • Cheese
    • Beans
  • Vitamin D deficiency - Inadequate amounts of vitamin D in children can cause bone diseases, such as rickets. Children need vitamin D to build strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium, strengthen the immune system against bacteria and viruses and regulate muscle and nerve functions. Doctors recommend providing vitamin D beginning shortly after birth.

    Vitamin D-rich foods include:
    • Some fish (salmon, light canned tuna)
    • Eggs
    • Milk
    • Yogurt
    • Fortified cereals

Except for vitamin D, micronutrients are not produced in the body and must be derived from the diet. Give your children a healthy start in life by instilling healthy eating patterns that include whole, nutrient-rich foods. Talk to a nutritionist or pediatrician before making any dietary changes or to find out if oral supplements are right for your child.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Biotechnology Information
World Health Organization

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