As a parent, I worry about every little thing with my kids: are they eating enough vegetables? Do they have allergies? Should they be learning Spanish?
One topic that definitely doesn’t seem to come up a lot at play dates, though, is whether or not our kids are getting enough vitamin D. It’s a biggie, though: One study discovered that about 9% of children are completely deficient in vitamin D, while 61% have insufficient levels of the essential vitamin. That’s millions of children!
So what’s the big deal? Well, our bodies need vitamin D in order to absorb calcium, which supports bone growth and strength. Without it, children can develop a softening of the bones (and in extreme cases, rickets), which can lead to stunted or delayed growth, skeletal malformations, increased breaks and fractures, as well as back and leg pain. Not only that, but vitamin D deficiency has been linked to health problems like heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, depression, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and more. Basically, any ailment you can think of can be traced back to a lack of vitamin D.
One of the best ways to ensure your body is producing enough vitamin D is by exposing it to sunlight, which can also give you skin cancer. So you’re probably slathering your kids with sunblock, blocking out the needed vitamin as well. That’s why vitamin D deficiencies are dramatically on the rise.
Without a blood test, it’s tough to determine if your child may be lacking vitamin D, but there are some warning signs that certainly warrant a discussion with your pediatrician. There are a few things to look out for in your kids that may raise concerns.
Aches and pains
Vitamin D helps your bones absorb strength-building calcium. Without it, your child’s skeletal structure is weakened, causing achy, throbbing sensations in their back and limbs.
A sweaty head is one of the earliest signs of vitamin D deficiency, indicating inflammation in the bones of the skull.
Without sufficient vitamin D, a child’s bones can become softer and more brittle, resulting in skeletal deformities like a curved spine, bow legs, thick wrists and ankles, pelvic problems, and skull malformations.
With bone weakness comes dental issues—often, children with insufficient vitamin D will have more cavities and holes in their enamel.
Because a child’s bones aren’t as well nourished, they may not grow as well or as quickly as they should. So often, those with vitamin D deficiency are shorter than their peers.
More respiratory infections
Both children and adults who don’t get enough vitamin D tend to have an increased risk of developing chest colds and infections, possibly due to a weakened immune system.
While having dark skin doesn’t mean that you’re lacking vitamin D, it could make you more susceptible to a deficiency. The more melanin that you have, the more time you’ll need to spend in the sun for your body to create a healthy supply of vitamin D. So, if your child is dark skinned, you may want to consider a blood test to be safe.
Again, gastrointestinal distress doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of vitamin D, but those with stomach conditions have a harder time absorbing the fat-soluble vitamin. So children with tummy issues and food allergies may be more susceptible.
How do I prevent vitamin D deficiencies?
Luckily, it’s easy to prevent a vitamin D deficiency—you just have to take steps to make sure your child is getting enough of what his or her little body needs. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IUs daily for children and adults. Supplements may be essential, especially if your child has been diagnosed with a true deficiency (discuss the correct dosage with your children’s doctor). Also, don’t be so afraid of sunlight, at least in moderation. If your child’s skin isn’t too sun-sensitive, some researchers suggest about five to thirty minutes, twice a week, without sunscreen, making sure the rays are hitting their face, arms, legs, or back. Of course, this gets tougher during the wintertime, on cloudy days, and in colder climates.
Ideally, you’ll want to make sure your children are getting vitamin D from their diet as well. Many breakfast cereals and juices are fortified with extra vitamin D, and fatty fish like wild salmon has about 400 IU/vitamin D in just three ounces.
Probably the easiest way to get vitamin D into your kids, though, is through dairy products, not only because they’re so abundant (one Washington dairy cow produces about 144 cups of milk every day), but also because they’re tasty. Have you ever met a kid who didn’t like milk and cheese? A glass of fortified milk provides about 100 IU/vitamin D, as does eight ounces of fortified yogurt, and three ounces of fortified cheese. (Side note: All of that milk consumption is actually good for the environment as well—the fertilizer from dairy cows is used for crops, and to provide electricity to power farms and homes.) So if your child has a big glass of milk at every meal, along with cheese in sandwiches and yogurt for snacks, he or she will be set for the day. Oh, and by the way, Mom and Dad, you need vitamin D as well, so you have full permission to dive into your own gooey grilled cheese or chocolate milkshake.
image: Getty/Eriko Koga
This post was sponsored by The Washington Dairy Products Commission