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When do kids need supplements?

If you’re reading this, then you have probably already discovered, hopefully with some guidance from your team of health care providers, that your child has a nutrition problem. Or maybe you’ve come to suspect there’s a deficit for some nutrients in your child. Should you fix it with a supplement? Does that work? What’s the best way to use those?

These are important questions for children with special needs like diabetes, food allergies, asthma and inflammatory conditions, developmental concerns like Down’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorders, inherited metabolic disorders, seizures, or growth and feeding problems. As many as 60% of children with special needs have nutrition problems that can potentially impair their functioning, learning, growth, or development (1). It has been known for decades that keeping children well nourished, whether they have special needs or not, helps them reach their functional potential, by supporting learning, growth, and development.

Supplements may fit into this, and part of my job as a pediatric dietitian is figuring out if, when, and how they do. This is something to discern based on individualized nutrition assessment. I take into account several pieces: Medical history, signs and symptoms, a food diary, a child’s growth history, circumstances of the child’s gestational period, delivery, and early infancy, and so on. The last piece to fill in the blanks would be lab data, because lab data alone can’t describe a child’s nutrition status. Here are some tips to help you use supplements more effectively. More tips are in my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right (2009, Penguin/Perigee) which you can pick up in most bookstores or libraries, or order via your favorite on line bookseller.

– Kids need food! In fact, they need much more food per pound than adults. If an adult were to eat what a toddler needs per pound, that adult would need 8,000-10,000 calories per day just to maintain normal weight. Giving lots of supplements without enough food means your child will probably not be able to use those supplements as intended. So, before buying supplements, do the footwork to give your child adequate and nutritious foods. How to do this for picky eaters with special needs is covered in Special Needs Kids Eat Right.
– Supplements don’t fix problems caused by inadequate food intake in kids. Anxiety, insomnia, irritability, rage/reactivity, behavior, low muscle tone, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, frequency of infections or illnesses, and school performance are all affected by total food intakes in children. Give a balance of healthy fats and oils, clean carbohydrates that aren’t too sugary, and easy to digest proteins every day.
– If you’ve been given a list of supplements to buy based on lab results, beware. Giving a pill for each lab finding out of reference range is a cumbersome, ineffective strategy, in my experience. For nutrition interventions to work well, children need the right amount of food, foods they can digest well, and good digestion and absorption. Your provider can help you assess whether your child needs to repair digestion and absorption before giving supplements.
– Rule out bowel infections in your child with your health care provider before beginning a complex supplement regimen. Remember, whatever you feed your child will be eaten by his resident bowel bacteria first. New research is emerging to describe how important this bowel flora can be – from helping us prevent inflammatory conditions (2), to encoding our own GI tracts with the skill to make digestive enzymes (3). Other research shows that unhealthy bowel bacteria can impact behavior or even seizures in children (4, 5) – making it all the more crucial to balance this piece before using supplements that might “fertilize” the wrong bowel flora.

Those are just a few reasons why supplements need to be worked into a total care plan for your child, rather than given without thoughtful strategy. Work with your health care providers to get it right; given in the right total context, the right supplements can work very well for children. If you need more help and information, contact me or schedule an appointment at NutritionCare.net.

Citations

1. Nutrition In The Prevention and Treatment of Disease, 2nd ed. Ann Coulston and Carol Boushey, Eds. Elsevier Academic Press. Burlington, MA and London, UK: 2008

2. Maslowski KM et al. Regulation of inflammatory responses by gut microbiota and chemoattractant receptor GPR43. Nature 2009 Oct 29;461(7268):1282-6.

3. Hehemann JH et al. Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota Nature 2010 April 8;464 (7269):908-912

4. MacFabe DF et al. Neurobiological effects of intraventricular propionic acid in rats: Possible role of short chain fatty acids on the pathogenesis and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders Behavioural Brain Research 2007;176:149–169

5. Herawati R et al. Colony count candida albicans of stool in autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Pathology and Medical Laboratory, Airlangga University E-Journal 13(1):November-2006

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