As a personal trainer and nutritionist, father-of-two Frank Cammalleri takes mealtimes seriously. Dinner is an eclectic mix of carrots, collards and onions sautéed with chicken — an easy dish packed with protein and vitamins.
But his 10-year-old son not so much.
“My youngest, yeah, he was a bit fickle and a bit picky for my tastes,” Cammalleri told Insider. “Not quite what I expected.”
Cammalleri, concerned that his son wasn’t getting enough vitamins and nutrients from his diet, put him on a schedule of regular supplements a few years ago. “Wherever I see what he’s not eating, I try to fill that void,” the father said.
Cammalleri isn’t the only parent turning to supplements. U.S. consumption of dietary supplements is at an all-time high, and new survey data suggests parents are the top buyers.
A recent University of Michigan survey found that half of a nationally representative sample of 1,251 parents surveyed said they depended on dietary supplements, and a recent study from Germany found that the prevalence of medications and dietary supplements in children between 2014 and 2014 increased increased in 2019.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a third of children and adolescents take dietary supplements, citing nationwide survey data from 2018.
A child’s diet can affect their weight, bone density, vision, mood, and a host of other health markers, and the Mayo Clinic recommends feeding children a nutritious diet with limited added sugars and saturated fats.
Using supplements for a balanced diet isn’t a bad idea, said Dr. Mona Amin, a Florida board-certified pediatrician who has not worked with Cammalleri, told Insider. But, Amin added, it’s not something she would recommend lightly. Not only is there little to no evidence that many supplements work, there are real risks associated with some pills if you don’t get the dosage right, especially in children.
High-carb school lunches and a desire to develop a healthy relationship with food are pushing parents toward supplements
Christina Chandra, a freelance food and health writer from Vancouver, Canada, wants to provide her children with balanced meals while teaching them to have a positive relationship with food — but the two goals coincided when they became picky eaters when they entered preschool .
Chandra’s daughter tried “every fruit under the sun” but couldn’t stand vegetables, and her son was the opposite. She also tries to let her kids eat whatever they want at birthday parties and at school.
So, Chandra started getting her kids on multivitamins when they started elementary school to make sure they were eating what they wanted while getting their nutrients.
“I’m not always going to force them to eat everything because I don’t want them to have this negative relationship with food,” Chandra told Insider. “In an ideal world, you’d eat an X amount of fruits and vegetables, as well as protein and calcium, [but] I see that doesn’t always happen.”
Cammalleri said he started his children on supplements after feeling school lunches weren’t enough for nutritious meals.
“I see their menu is mostly carbs,” Cammalleri said. “I think it prevents my kids from learning more than they should and what they can learn in school.”
Registered Dietitian Alyson Martinez told Insider she understands parents’ desire to give children supplements because “there is seldom a child who eats well at school lunch.” A recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University found that even school meals that meet federal nutritional guidelines fall short of the daily recommended calorie, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber intakes for children.
But concerns about school lunches shouldn’t prompt parents to contact the supplements department directly, Martinez said: Kids can still meet their nutritional goals throughout the week with breakfast, dinner, and snacks.
A pediatrician’s warning to parents: Dietary supplements aren’t regulated, and you need to be careful about dosing
Amin said that ideally, healthy children just need a varied diet — or one with different fruits, vegetables, spices and probiotics — adequate sleep, hydration, exercise and time in the sun.
Pediatricians sometimes recommend a daily multivitamin for children who don’t like to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, Amin said.
“If a family genuinely believes they’ve done their research and want to give it, I’m not against it,” Amin told Insider. “I just want them to know that it’s something that’s going into their child’s body and that they want to weigh the benefits and risks of this situation.
However, since the dietary supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA, Amin warned that there are no regulations to ensure the product’s safety or even that it is effective. A 2017 Consumer Lab study found that nearly half of all gummy vitamins have significantly different nutrient levels than what is listed on the label.
As for other popular supplements like
and Fish Oil, Amin said very few robust studies have been conducted to determine what dosage is right for children. Without this information, parents run the risk of overdosing their children on vitamins. For example, too much vitamin D can cause confusion and gastrointestinal problems, while vitamin A toxicity can lead to long-term bone and liver damage.
“When we don’t know something in the medical community, parents need to make their own decision, understand the benefits and risks, and understand the fact that the medical literature is incomplete,” Amin said.