5 Dangers of Supplements for Children

The smiling girl holds a medicinal capsule in a hand

Many parents provide their children supplements such as multivitamins, omega-3 pills and probiotics, thinking the added nutrients can only boost their child’s health. It can’t hurt, right?

Not so, according to CHOC clinical dietitian Jessica Brown. While supplements can have benefits, they may not be safe or necessary for every child. “National surveys actually show that most children are getting enough vitamins and nutrients already,” Brown says.

Parents should keep these risks in mind:

  • Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration the way that foods and medications are. That means their safety and effectiveness may be unknown, particularly in children because so little testing has been done in their age group.
  • Many supplements are mislabeled. Recent studies have found harmful chemicals in several products. Some also contain ingredients that aren’t mentioned or more amounts than stated.
  • Believe it or not, there’s a risk of getting too many vitamins. “With more and more fortified foods on the market like breakfast cereals, granola bars and even fortified water, your child’s vitamin intake may be too excessive if they also take supplements,” Brown says. Vitamins at high doses can be toxic and can also interfere with the absorption of other nutrients.
  • If your child is taking medication for an illness, a supplement could interact with it and have adverse effects. It’s important to tell your child’s doctor if you are using supplements of any kind.
  • Supplements won’t replace a healthy diet. Brown recommends that parents focus on four areas of food that have the nutrients a child’s growing body needs: fortified dairy or dairy substitutes, whole or enriched grain products, dark green vegetables and healthy fats such as nut butters, plant oils and non-hydrogenated margarine. “It’s difficult to replicate nature in pill form,” Brown says. “The bottom line is, a supplement is not as effective as healthy eating.”

Brown does recommend supplements if a child is an extremely picky eater and won’t eat one or more food groups, eats less than 20 foods or has a diet low in nutrient-rich foods. A supplement might also be appropriate if a child has food allergies. To find a safe supplement, look for those certified from organizations such as National Science Foundation International, United States Pharmacopeia or Consumer Lab, Brown says. Always talk to a doctor before starting any kind of regimen.

CHOC uses caution with supplements and requires that all products taken during a hospital stay be reviewed and verified by the child’s physician and a pharmacist.

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