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, E and K and minerals like calcium, iron, iodine and zinc.

The best way for your child to get enough vitamins and minerals is by eating a wide variety of foods from the five food groups, 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, tofu, legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on) and nuts.

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

Vitamins and how to get them

Here’s a list of the vitamins you and your family need and how to get them.

Vitamin A
You get vitamin A from liver, meat, milk, eggs, and orange fruit and vegies like carrots and sweet potatoes. You need vitamin A for eyesight, skin, growth, development and immune function.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
You get vitamin B1 from fish, meat, yeast extracts (like Vegemite), wholemeal breads and fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin B1 helps release energy from foods, so that the nervous system and muscles work properly.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
You get vitamin B2 from milk, yoghurt, meat, cheese, yeast extracts, eggs, wholemeal breads and fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin B2 helps release energy from food.

Vitamin B3 (niacin)
You get Vitamin B3 from meat, fish, chicken, nuts and yeast extracts. Vitamin B3 helps release energy from food.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
You get vitamin B6 from meat, fish, wholegrain foods, vegetables and nuts. Vitamin B6 releases energy from protein and helps with red blood cell production and brain function.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
You get vitamin B12 from animal foods including meat, fish, eggs and milk, and also from some fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell production and promotes growth.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
You get vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruit,  kiwi fruit, capsicums and potatoes. 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.

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, butter and margarine. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium to keep bones strong and healthy.

Vitamin E
You get vitamin E from sunflower and canola oils, margarine, seeds and nuts. Vitamin E boosts your immune system and helps with the development of healthy skin and eyes.

Vitamin K
You get vitamin K from green leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach, and also from eggs and beans. The bacteria in your body also make vitamin K. Vitamin K is important for helping your blood to clot.

Folate (folic acid)
You get folate from green leafy vegetables, liver, legumes and wholegrain breads and cereals. Folate helps you absorb protein and form new blood cells and DNA. Getting enough folate before and during pregnancy can help prevent many neural tube defects. Cooking and processing food – for example, as part of the tinning process – reduces the amount of folate in food.

Minerals and how to get them

Here’s a list of the minerals you and your family need and how to get them.

You get calcium from dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt, fish with edible bones, like sardines and salmon, tofu and some green leafy vegetables, like kale and bok choy. Calcium builds strong bones and teeth.

You get iodine from seafood, vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil, iodised salt and bread made with iodised salt. Most bakery and supermarket bread is made with iodised salt, which will give most people enough iodine. 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.

You get iron from 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.

You get zinc from meat, chicken, seafood, milk, seeds, tofu and wholegrain cereals. Zinc helps with growth, wound healing and immune system function.

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

Fruit and vegetables are vital sources of vitamins and minerals. You might like to read about encouraging 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.

Vitamin deficiencies
These are the most common vitamin deficiencies in Australian children:

  • Vitamin D: vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets and bone disease.
  • Vitamin B12: 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.

Mineral deficiencies
These are the most common mineral deficiencies in Australian children:

  • Calcium: not enough calcium can lead to rickets, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
  • Iodine: not enough iodine can cause goitre and other conditions like intellectual disability.
  • Iron: children are at higher risk of iron deficiency than adults, mainly because children need more iron when they go through growth spurts. They might also be low in iron if they’re vegans or vegetarians, eat a limited variety of foods, have coeliac disease, or have gastrointestinal blood loss. Adolescent girls are more at risk if they have frequent, prolonged or very heavy periods. Iron deficiency can cause tiredness, lack of concentration and pale skin.
  • 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.

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 and food 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 – like 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, vitamin A builds up in the body if it’s taken in excessive amounts. 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 that your child takes an appropriate supplement.

Note that vitamin and mineral supplements can interact with medications. If your child takes a vitamin or mineral supplement and your GP is prescribing medication for your child, it’s important to let the GP know about the supplement.