Most parents are aware of how important calcium is for children. Kids need calcium for bone strength and brain growth — and to boost the body’s immune system. But what if your child doesn’t like to drink milk or is lactose intolerant? What are the potential consequences of vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D is a naturally occurring vitamin that assists your body in the absorption of calcium. It’s crucial for growing children and teens, as 90 percent of adult bone mass is gained in the first two decades of life. Most vitamin D is absorbed through foods in your diet or from supplements. Vitamin D is then converted to its “active form” by sunlight and put to use helping the body absorb and use calcium to make bones.
Though vitamin D is most directly connected to bone mass, there has been some speculation that its deficiency can be linked to multiple sclerosis, Type 2 diabetes, even depression. At its most severe, a lack of vitamin D causes rickets, a softening of the bones, though that condition is rare.
While most vitamin D deficiency in children is not that severe, Dr. Jeffrey R. Sawyer, associate professor of orthopaedics at the Campbell Clinic, says between 30 to 40 percent of children today have a vitamin D deficiency.
“Children acquire bone density up until the age of 25 or 30, and then that is all the bone density that they will have.” If a child does not have sufficient vitamin D in his diet, he can be at risk for having a less-than-optimal peak bone density. After the age of 30 or so, women in particular start losing bone density, so “Vitamin D is especially important for teenage girls,” says Sawyer.
Since a lack of vitamin D has no outward or immediate symptoms, the only way to get a diagnosis is through a blood test. Sawyer claims most children who get a varied and healthy diet should be fine. But as this vitamin is most commonly found in animal products such as dairy and meat products, children who have milk allergies or who are on a vegetarian diet may be at risk for vitamin D deficiency. “If parents are concerned, they should get a blood test for their child,” he says.
Treating a deficiency can be as simple as taking a vitamin D supplement. Sawyer claims adding a multivitamin that contains vitamin D is a healthy choice for any child, particularly those who are picky eaters or have dairy allergies. For people diagnosed with a severe vitamin D deficiency, prescription vitamin D supplements are available, but says Sawyer, “Most vitamin D deficiency can be treated with a healthy diet and a multivitamin.”
Is Your Child At-Risk for Vitamin D Deficiency?
• Eats a vitamin D-poor diet
• Limited exposure to sunlight
• Is obese
• Has darker skin (darker skin synthesizes less vitamin D from sun exposure than light skin)
• Has cystic fibrosis, Type 1 or 2 diabetes, or gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (which interferes with food absorption)
Eat These Vitamin-D Rich Foods
• Vitamin D-fortified milk
• Vitamin D-fortified orange juice & cereals
• Salmon, tuna, or mackerel
• Egg yolks
• Yogurt & cheese