Iron, vitamin A, calcium, and magnesium are important nutrients for kids' health. While we may associate nutrient deficiencies with developing countries, even some Canadian kids aren't getting enough of these nutrients.
By and large, children in Canada are doing well when it comes to having their nutritional needs met. Most children in this country have access to clean water and a good variety of nutritious foods. Yet despite this, a major survey conducted by Health Canada suggests there is still room for improvement when it comes to the intake of certain nutrients.
In 2012, Health Canada released a report (the Canadian Community Health Survey, or CCHS), which showed that, while Canadian children were meeting the recommended intakes for most nutrients, there were some important exceptions.
For children of most ages, the daily intake of sodium exceeded recommendations. For adolescents, more than 80 percent were found to be exceeding the daily tolerable upper intake limit (UL) of sodium!
Excess sodium consumption can often be attributed to convenience foods such as chips, frozen and canned foods, and salty snacks. Too much sodium in the diet has been linked to increased risk for high blood pressure down the road (which may increase the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease), so monitoring sodium intakes in children now can contribute to better health in the years ahead.
Focusing on fresh foods and snacking on fresh fruit, vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, and similar healthy snacks can help to keep sodium intakes in check. Carefully reading food labels to assess their sodium content (see chart below) is also an important step in monitoring sodium intake.
According to the CCHS, the rate of inadequate calcium intake in children ranged from 44 percent to 70 percent, with girls in the 14- to 18-year-old category being most at risk for inadequate intakes.
Calcium is required for bone and tooth health, as well as proper function of muscles. Long-term inadequate intake may therefore affect the health of bones, teeth, and the ability of muscle to contract properly.
For young women, building healthy bones is of particular concern due to the greater tendency of women to lose bone density as they age. The finding that this group is also the most likely to be missing the mark on their calcium intakes therefore requires particular attention.
Boosting calcium intake is possible by focusing on calcium-rich foods in the diet such as dairy foods (see chart on page 33). For children who don’t eat dairy foods, there are many calcium-fortified products such as soy/almond/rice/oat milks and soy/coconut yogurts.
Boys over 14 and girls over nine years were found to have inadequate magnesium intakes, with teenaged girls having the greatest risk, at more than 66 percent.
This is of concern due to the many roles magnesium plays in the body, including blood sugar regulation, muscle and nerve function, blood pressure regulation, and the regulation of various proteins and hormones. Because of this, the impact of inadequate magnesium intake can be wide reaching.
Getting enough magnesium from the diet is as easy as eating whole grains, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, nuts, and dairy foods.
For children aged nine and older, between 11 percent and 42 percent were assessed as having inadequate vitamin A intake, with teenaged girls again being at highest risk.
Vitamin A is important for cell repair and healing, immune system function, and proper growth of body tissues, as well as playing an important role in maintaining healthy vision. Deficiencies in vitamin A can therefore negatively impact the ability to fight infections and repair damaged tissues, and it can also affect vision, especially in low light.
Although some foods are quite high in vitamin A (such as liver), most of us end up getting our dietary vitamin A in the form of beta carotene (from, among other sources, orange-coloured vegetables and fruits), which the body then converts to vitamin A.
Although most children in Canada are meeting their required daily iron intakes, there are some exceptions. At particular risk are adolescent girls, who may not be keeping up with the iron losses that occur with their monthly menses.
Iron is required in order for the blood to carry oxygen to our cells and tissues. As iron levels drop, children and teens can become very tired and irritable and have problems with poor appetite, focusing, learning, and performing in school.
Because too much iron can cause its own set of problems, it is not recommended to supplement children with iron unless they are known to be deficient (your health care practitioner can test this if there are concerns). Instead, ensuring regular intake of iron-rich foods that provide iron is a safe and natural way to keep children’s levels healthy.
So what does all of this mean?
For the most part, it shows that Canadian children are doing quite well in meeting their nutritional needs through diet, but that a few key areas show a need for improvement: calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, sodium, and, for some, iron.
The safest and most natural way to improve these intakes is by boosting the intake of foods that are rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin A while trying to reduce the intake of high-sodium foods. The following chart provides some guidance.
Read package labels
For packaged foods, read labels carefully. Look at the percent daily value (% DV) listed next to sodium. If the value is 15% or higher, it would be considered a high-sodium food, and looking for an alternative (with 5% DV or less listed on the label) will help to decrease excess sodium intake.
In the CCHS, dietary vitamin D was listed as being well below recommended intakes in most age groups. However, this must be interpreted carefully. Most of our vitamin D does not come from our diet but from sunlight exposure.
Dietitians of Canada advises that adequate vitamin D is possible through diet and sun exposure; however, breastfed infants, those with darker skin, and individuals with certain medical conditions may need a supplement. If in doubt, consult your health care practitioner.
Food sources for important nutrients
|vitamin A (beta carotene)||
Sources of excess sodium
- snack foods such as pretzels and chips
- canned soups
- frozen dinners
- deli meats
Benefits of probiotics for children
As part of the natural environment of the intestine, probiotics support the health and function of the digestive tract, which can have a major impact on health overall.
A 2012 position statement from the Canadian Paediatric Society examined and recognized several potential benefits of probiotics.
- Probiotics have demonstrated benefits in studies into the treatment and prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, which can affect up to 30 percent of those taking antibiotics.
- As part of treatment for virus-induced diarrhea, probiotics help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.
- Although more research is needed, studies so far suggest that regular use of probiotics may also help prevent other types of infections in young children, with probiotic use being associated with fewer sick days from daycare as well as less use of antibiotics and episodes of middle ear infections.
- Although the research results so far have been inconsistent, some studies suggest that probiotics, when taken during pregnancy, may help reduce the risk of allergic disease (such as eczema) in children once they are born.