Most children who take vitamins don’t really need them, and kids who eat poorly and are most likely to benefit from nutritional supplements rarely get them, a new study reports.
The results surprised researchers, said lead author Dr. Ulfat Shaikh, a pediatrician at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine who treats children with nutritional problems.
“We hypothesized that people who use minerals and vitamin supplements might be using them to cushion the effects of poor nutrition,” she said. “We actually found the opposite.”
The children who used supplements the most were those who already drank a lot of milk, ate a lot of fiber and didn’t consume much fat or cholesterol, Dr. Shaikh said. They were healthier overall and tended to be white, have health insurance and come from upper-income families. They also tended to get a lot of exercise, weren’t overweight, considered themselves in good health and didn’t watch too much television or spend a lot of time playing video games.
The study was published in today’s issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Researchers derived the information from an analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey results from 1999 to 2004. They found that about one-third of American children ages 2 to 17 had used a vitamin or mineral supplement within the previous month, but that most of them did not need to supplement their diet.
On the other hand, children who used vitamins the least tended to be at greatest risk for nutritional deficits. They did not eat as well as the children who were taking supplements, lived in low-income families that were short of food and had less access to health care, the study found.
“Poverty seems to be the overriding factor,” Dr. Shaikh said. Although supplements may not seem expensive to a middle-class family, the cost may be onerous for a low-income family, she said. “Parents who were poor were perhaps unable to afford supplements.”
Generally speaking, children who eat a varied diet do not need to take vitamins or other supplements, and the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend supplement use for children over a year who eat a healthy diet. Vitamins may be recommended for children with chronic illnesses or eating disorders and for obese children trying to lose weight.