By Raising Children Network
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School boy choosing fruit
We need vitamins and minerals to grow, to see properly, to make bones, muscles, skin and organs, and to battle infections. If we don’t get enough of all vitamins and minerals, it can lead to serious problems.

Vitamins and minerals: the basics

Your child needs lots of essential vitamins and minerals for growth and development. They include vitamins A, B, C, D and E and minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine and zinc.

The best way for your child to get enough vitamins and minerals is by eating a wide variety of fresh foods, including:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • grain food – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
  • reduced-fat dairy food – milk, yoghurt and cheese
  • meat, fish, chicken, eggs and legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on).

Our bodies absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients better when they come from food, rather than from vitamin and mineral supplements.

Where to get your vitamins and minerals

Vitamin/mineral  Where to get it More information
Vitamin A

Liver, meat, milk and eggs, and orange fruit and vegies, such as carrots and sweet potatoes

You need vitamin A for eyesight, skin, growth, development and immune function.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) Fish, meat, yeast extracts (such as Vegemite), wholemeal breads and cereals Vitamin B1 helps release energy from foods, so that the nervous system and muscles work properly.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) Milk, meat, cheese, yeast extracts, eggs, wholemeal breads and cereals Vitamin B2 helps break down fats, protein and carbohydrates.
Vitamin B3
Meat, fish, chicken, nuts and yeast extracts Vitamin B3 helps you absorb food and promotes growth and energy.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) Meat, fish, wholegrain foods, vegetables and nuts Vitamin B6 breaks down protein into energy and helps with red blood cell production and brain function.
Vitamin B12
Animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs and milk Vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell production and promotes growth. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a form of anaemia. Vegans can find it hard to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets and might need a supplement.
Vitamin C
(ascorbic acid)
Fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruit and kiwi fruit
Vitamin C builds collagen and helps you fight infections and absorb iron from food. It also keeps teeth, bones and gums healthy. You can lose some vitamin C when you cook food.
Folic acid
Green leafy vegetables, liver and wholegrain cereals
Folic acid helps you absorb protein and form new blood cells and DNA. Cooking and processing food – for example, as part of the tinning process – reduces the amount of folate in food.
Vitamin D Our bodies make most of the vitamin D we need when we get enough direct sunlight on our skin. There are small amounts in oily fish, fish liver oils, egg yolks and butter. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium to keep bones strong and healthy.
Vitamin E
Sunflower and canola oils, margarine and nuts Vitamin E boosts your immune system and helps with the development of healthy skin and eyes.
Iron Meat, liver, chicken, seafood, dried beans, egg yolks and fortified breakfast cereal Iron is especially important for the brain and blood, and it also helps carry oxygen around the body. Children are at higher risk of iron deficiency, mainly because they need more iron when they go through growth spurts.
Iodine Dairy products, seafood, vegetables from particular soils, iodised salt and bread made with iodised salt Iodine is essential for normal growth and tissue development, and helps control the ways your cells make energy and use oxygen. Pregnant women need higher levels of iodine.
Calcium Dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and fish with edible bones, such as sardines and salmon
Calcium builds strong bones and teeth. Large amounts of fibre and iron in your diet can affect calcium absorption.
Zinc Meat, chicken, seafood, milk and wholegrain cereals Zinc helps with growth, wound healing and immune system function.

Other essential minerals include phosphorus, magnesium, copper, manganese and chromium.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

If your child isn’t getting enough vitamins or minerals over a period of time, this is often called a ‘deficiency’. It means there’s a shortage of one or more vitamins and minerals in your child’s body.

Common vitamin deficiencies
In Australia, the vitamins that kids are most likely to be low on are these two:

  1. Vitamin D: this vitamin comes in small amounts from foods, but the body mainly makes vitamin D from sunlight. Not getting enough vitamin D can lead to rickets and bone disease. A baby’s vitamin D level depends on the mother’s level in pregnancy and then on how much sunlight and food with vitamin D the baby gets.
  2. Vitamin B12: this vitamin is needed for blood and brain growth. Some breastfed babies don’t get enough vitamin B12 if their mothers have low levels of vitamin B12 (people who follow a vegan diet can find it hard to get enough B12).

Common mineral deficiencies
Australian kids are most commonly deficient in the following minerals:

  • Calcium: one survey has shown that more than half of Australian teenage boys and girls don’t have enough calcium in their diets. 
  • Iodine: not enough iodine can cause goitre and other conditions such as mental retardation. Most bakery and supermarket bread is now made with iodised salt, which will give most people enough iodine in their diets.
  • Iron: children might be low in iron if they’re vegans or vegetarians, drink a lot of milk and don’t have much appetite for other foods, have coeliac disease, go through a growth spurt, or have gastrointestinal blood loss.
  • Zinc: toddlers who have a limited diet for a long time, as well as vegans and vegetarians, are most likely to not get enough zinc. A zinc deficiency can slow down your child’s growth.
A severe iron deficiency is called iron deficiency anaemia. Up to 6% of toddlers have iron deficiency anaemia, which can have long-term effects on brain development. It can also cause tiredness, lack of concentration and pale skin.

How different diets can affect vitamin and mineral intake

If your child has a restricted diet, you might need to be extra careful about making sure he gets all the vitamins and minerals he needs.

For example, vegetarian or vegan diets can make it more difficult to get enough iron. Food allergies or intolerances can make it harder for your child to get enough calcium. With careful planning and a bit of research on other ways to get these nutrients into your child’s diet, you can get around these issues.

If your child has a chronic disease that affects how she absorbs food – such as coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease – the vitamins and minerals in a standard healthy diet might not be enough for her. Your GP or a dietitian can help you work out what you need to do to.

Children who eat lots of ‘sometimes’ foods, like sweet drinks, chips and cakes, might fill up on those and not have enough room for the foods that give them essential vitamins and minerals. You could try limiting sometimes foods to special occasions.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals – more isn’t necessarily better.

Large amounts of some vitamins can actually be dangerous. For example, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A build up in the body if they’re taken in excessive amounts, whereas water-soluble vitamins can be passed out of the body in wee. Large doses of some minerals can also cause problems.

If you’re concerned that your child’s diet could be leaving him low on some vitamins or minerals, and he isn’t able to eat more food containing the vitamins and minerals he needs, see your doctor or a dietitian for advice. They might suggest taking an appropriate supplement.

Note that vitamin and mineral supplements can interact with medications. It’s important to let your doctor know if your child takes a vitamin or mineral supplement when she’s prescribed any medications.

Supplements can improve your child’s diet if your child needs them, but our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals better when they come from fresh food.
  • Last updated or reviewed 08-09-2014