Is the medical community doing everything it can to learn about nutritional health and inform their patients about what they know? Or are they waiting for all the research data to absolutely confirm what is appearing in the medical literature regarding nutritional supplementation and its impact on health?
The official view from the medical community remains that our diet should be adequate to fulfill our nutritional requirements. Health officials claim there is no evidence that our current food supply is inadequate or lacking in nutrients or unsafe to eat. However, consumers are increasingly conscious of the link between nutrition and health, and many are concerned about the safety and nutritional value of the food they eat. Scientific information is accumulating in the adult medical research about the benefits of nutritional supplementation and natural remedies to prevent and treat diseases. Unfortunately, less research appears in the pediatric literature. Those of us who treat children must use information in adult literature and extrapolate and restudy the information for children.
Poor dietary habits in children are the norm, not the exception. A large study of over 3000 children appeared in Pediatrics in 1997 and showed that only 1% of these children met the recommendations for the Food Guide Pyramid. The largest pattern of children met none of the recommendations for the Food Guide Pyramid and this group of children was low in vitamin B6, iron, calcium, zinc and fiber. Our first efforts as parents must be directed at changing the dietary habits of our children and our families. However, as caring parents, there will be phases and stages of frustration as we try to do the best for our children. Nutritional supplementation can be that extra insurance to protect their cells, but it should not be used as an excuse to feed “bad” foods to our children.
Children are often picky, and because so many food choices are low in nutritional value, children are often eating the wrong foods. In addition, our children are being raised in a more challenging world, exposed to more toxins, pollution, and stress. They are exposed to free radicals and oxidative stress daily and in higher amounts than when their parents and grandparents were being raised. Air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, sun exposure, preservatives, radiation, smoke, excess exercise, fatty foods, and stress are factors that raise free radical levels. These free radicals increase risks of degenerative diseases as they cause cellular and tissue damage within the body. There is a great need for diets rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to combat the free radical damage. Children receiving a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are better able to counteract the effects of the extra toxins they might face.
Impact of Nutrient Deficiencies on Our Children
Nutrient deficiencies in children may have short-term and long-term health effects and research is rapidly accumulating in this area. A few studies that have focused on the nutritional needs of children are summarized below.
- A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, April 1999, looked at children in the eighth-grade and measured their homocysteine levels. High levels of the amino acid, homocysteine (a by-product of our normal metabolism), has been found to increase cardiovascular disease risk in adults. Three vitamins: folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 have been found to help lower homocysteine. This is the first large US study to measure homocysteine in children. Children who did not take a multivitamin had six percent more homocysteine than children who even took one vitamin a week. The children who took daily vitamins were the most protected from high homocysteine levels. Currently, this evidence does not mean that vitamins for children will prevent heart attacks or strokes later in life, but we certainly need to study this issue further.
- Osteoporosis affects 25 million Americans a year and contributes to approximately 1.3 million bone fractures per year according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Building bone mass early in life can help prevent osteoporosis. A survey of adolescents showed that only 19 percent of adolescents know what the RDA guidelines are for calcium. Their average calcium intake was about half of the RDA.
- High levels of choline during pregnancy may enhance memory and learning capacity in the fetus. The National Academy of Sciences has designated choline an essential nutrient. Pregnant women should take 450 milligrams per day and nursing women should get 550 milligrams daily. Initial studies done with pregnant rats suggest choline supplementation may have long lasting effects on brain function. Pups born to mothers that received no choline did poorly on tests designed to measure attention and certain types of memory.