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We need vitamins and minerals to grow, see properly, and make bones, muscles, skin and organs. They also help us battle infections. If we don’t get enough of all vitamins and minerals, it can lead to serious problems.

School boy choosing fruit

The basics

There are lots of essential vitamins and minerals. They include vitamins A, B, C, D and E and minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine and copper.

Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals, so it’s easy for most people to get them simply by eating a wide variety of fresh foods.

And a healthy diet with lots of fresh food gives us not only vitamins and minerals, but also fibre, antioxidants, trace elements and so on. Our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals 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 What you need it for More information
Vitamin A
 Liver, milk and eggs Eyesight, growth and immune function The body can also make vitamin A from carotenoids, which are found in orange vegies and fruits such as carrots and sweet potatoes
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) Yeast extracts (such as Vegemite), wholemeal breads and cereals Helps release energy from foods  
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) Milk, yeast extracts, eggs, wholemeal breads and cereals Helps break down fats, protein and carbohydrates in food  
Vitamin B3 (niacin) Meat, fish, chicken, nuts and yeast extracts Helps absorb foods and needed for growth  
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) Meats, wholegrain foods, vegetables and nuts Metabolises protein  
Vitamin B12
Animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs and milk Used in our red blood cells Vegans can find it difficult to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets and might need a supplement
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) Fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits Builds collagen, helps fight infections and keeps teeth, bones and gums healthy Vitamin C is water soluble, so you can lose some of it through cooking
Folic acid Green leafy vegetables, liver and wholegrain cereals Helps absorb protein and form blood cells Cooking and processing food (such as tinned food) will reduce the amount of folate
Vitamin D Animal products such as fish liver oils, egg yolks and butter Helps keep bones strong Most of the vitamin D we need is made by our bodies when we get enough direct sunlight on our skin
Vitamin E
Plant oils such as sunflower and canola oils, margarine and nuts Helps protect the body  
Iron Meat, chicken, seafood, dried beans, egg yolks, fortified breakfast cereal Especially important for the brain and blood, and also helps transport oxygen around the body Too much iron can interfere with absorption of other nutrients and lead to liver damage
Iodine Seafood, vegetables from some particular soils, iodised salt and bread made with iodised salt Helps control the function of cells in the body  
Calcium Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Fish with edible bones (such as sardines and salmon) Builds strong bones and teeth Large amounts of fibre in the diet can affect calcium absorption
Zinc Meat, chicken, milk and wholegrain cereals Helps with growth, taste and immune system function Large amounts of fibre can limit zinc absorption

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

A diet with a lot of fresh fruit and vegies is the best way for your child to get many of her vitamins and minerals. But getting your child to eat these foods can be easier said than done. You could try to be creative – for example, make a funny fruit face. For more ideas, read our article on getting your child to eat vegetables or see our illustrated guide to child-friendly fruit and vegies.

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 from foods, but the body also produces 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 vitamin D-rich food 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 are have low levels of vitamin B12 (people who follow a vegan diet can find it hard to get enough B12).

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

  • Iron: children might be low in iron if they follow a vegetarian diet, 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. A severe iron deficiency is called iron deficiency anaemia.
  • Calcium: this mineral makes up 1.5-2% of the body and is needed for strong bones and teeth. One survey has shown that more than half of Australian teenage boys and girls don’t have enough calcium in their diets.
  • Zinc: toddlers who have a limited diet for a long time and people who follow a vegetarian diet are most likely to not get enough zinc. Being zinc-deficient can harm your child’s growth.
  • Iodine: iodine deficiency causes the serious condition goitre and can affect the brain. Mild iodine deficiency is common in the southern states of Australia, but most bread sold in bakeries and supermarkets is now made with iodised salt. If you add salt to your cooking, you can choose iodised salt.
Up to 6% of toddlers have iron deficiency anaemia, which can have long term effects on brain development.

How different diets can affect vitamin and mineral intake

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

For example, vegetarian diets can make it more difficult to get enough iron. Dairy allergies or intolerances can make it harder for your child to get enough calcium. But with careful planning and a bit of research to find alternative nutrient sources, you can get around these issues.

If your child has a chronic disease that impacts on the way she absorbs food – such as coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease – the amount of vitamins and minerals in a standard healthy diet might not be enough for her to get the vitamins and minerals she needs. Your GP or a nutritionist can help you identify what you need to do to in this case.

Children who eat lots of ‘sometimes’ foods, like sweet drinks, chips and cakes, might fill up on those and not leave enough room for the foods that give them essential vitamins and minerals.

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.

But 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, taking a supplement might be a good option.

If your doctor or health care provider has suggested that your child should take a supplement, choosing the best one can be tricky. Look for one that contains the specific vitamin or mineral that your doctor’s concerned about – up to the recommended amount only – and that comes in a form that’s easy for your child to take.

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.

Food gives us not only vitamins and minerals, but also fibre, antioxidants, trace elements and so on. Supplements can help your child’s diet, but our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals better when they come from food.
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  • Last Updated 19-09-2011
  • Last Reviewed 17-09-2011
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