Many Kids Don't Need the Vitamins They're Taking

But poor children who do need supplements aren't getting them, study shows

MONDAY, Feb. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Many healthy U.S. children and teenagers may be popping vitamins and mineral supplements they don't need, researchers report.

The experts note that vitamin and mineral supplements are not considered necessary when a person eats a varied diet.

On the other hand, children who actually need these supplements -- those with poorer nutrition, less physical activity, and from low-income households -- may not be getting the dosage of vitamins and minerals they require, according to researchers reporting in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend supplemental vitamins for most children over the age of 1. The supplements are recommended for children with chronic diseases, eating disorders and certain other conditions.

In fact, supplement overdose or poisoning can be an issue, especially in younger (2-to-4-year-olds) children; overdoses can lead to vomiting, or to more serious problems such as kidney or liver damage.

"We were curious about why certain parents may choose to use over-the-counter multivitamin supplements for children, and some might not," said study author Dr. Ulfat Shaikh, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California Davis School of Medicine and pediatrician at UC Davis Children's Hospital. "We hypothesized that supplements might be used to reduce adverse effects if parents thought their child wasn't eating right or were wondering where their next meal was coming from."

The authors reviewed data on vitamin and mineral supplementation as well as diet, exercise and health insurance factors on almost 11,000 children and adolescents aged 2 to 17 from the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

About a third (34 percent) of young people had used vitamin and mineral supplements in the month before being interviewed.

As expected, underweight children used vitamins and minerals the most.

Surprisingly, however, these supplements were more likely to be consumed by children who did not need them as much, i.e. white children from families with higher incomes, more food security and, overall, better nutrition and physical activity levels. Thirty-seven percent of these children (who were also less likely to be obese) took vitamins, compared to 28 percent of those in less privileged situations.

Cost seems to be the biggest obstacle to lower-income households adding supplements to their children's diet, the team found.

"One of the things that we thought was responsible for this was the possibility that income and parental education status might override other factors," Shaikh said.

And, indeed, the data showed that 22 percent of children in households below the federal poverty line used vitamins, compared with 43 percent in households above the poverty line.

Thirty-eight percent of children in households without food stamps used vitamins, compared with 18 percent of youngsters in households that did use food stamps.

For its part, the supplements industry views the findings as a "call to action" to get vitamin and mineral supplements to this underserved population, said Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Center for Responsible Nutrition, in Washington, D.C.

The center has been lobbying to get vitamins and mineral supplementation covered by the food stamp program and WIC (Women Infants Children), Duffy said.

An outside expert added another thought to the process.

"The problem is people who can afford vitamin supplements can also afford a lot of different varieties of food -- not that I think people on limited budgets can't afford to eat healthy," said Kris Rudolph, a pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "But . . . you definitely need to sit down and think about it, and you have to have somebody who's helpful."

Low-income families can get vitamins on prescription if they have documented deficiencies, but that documentation is also hard to come by, Rudolph added.

On the other hand, Rudolph noted, a 50-cent can of canned fruit or a bag of frozen vegetables can provide good nutrition.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more on vitamins and minerals.

SOURCES: Ulfat Shaikh, M.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, University of California Davis School of Medicine and pediatrician, UC Davis Children's Hospital; Duffy MacKay, vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, Center for Responsible Nutrition, Washington, D.C.; Kris Rudolph, R.D., L.D., pediatric nutritionist, Cincinnati Children's Hospital; February 2009 Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine
Consumer News