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4 Nutrients Your Child May Be Missing

Many American children aren't getting enough of four essential nutrients: vitamin D, calcium, fiber, and potassium.

You can easily include them in your child’s diet, once you know what they do and how much your child needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is the hottest vitamin on researchers' radars these days, and most people don't get enough of it.

In adults, a shortfall of vitamin D has been linked to conditions including osteoporosis, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, and depression. It's not clear yet if it can prevent those conditions, but a deficiency is a growing concern.

Experts agree that vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and maximize bone growth and strength. Kids who get too little of it can develop soft bones (a condition called rickets) early in life and osteoporosis, which typically shows up later in life.

How much vitamin D to get: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids get a minimum of 400 IU per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), which sets the U.S. government's official nutrient guidelines, recommends a daily dietary allowance of 600 IU for children ages 1-18. That's about the equivalent of six glasses of fortified milk.

How to get more vitamin D: The body makes the vitamin when exposed to strong sunlight, storing extra for future use. Common foods rich in it include most milk products and other fortified foods, such as some breakfast cereals, orange juice, and yogurt. Other foods that have it include fattier fish, such as salmon and light tuna.

Supplements are another source . Children who don't drink a quart of fortified milk every day should take supplements, according to the AAP.


Calcium helps bones grow and stay strong. It also helps with heart rhythm, blood clotting, and muscle function.

Most calcium is stored in bones. If your child doesn't get enough in his or her diet, the body will take it from their bones.

How much calcium to get: Children should get this much per day, according to the IOM:

  • Ages 1-3: 500 milligrams
  • Ages 4-8: 800 milligrams
  • Ages 9-18: 1,300 milligrams

Many U.S. children get far too little. That's especially true of teens, and the teenage years are crucial bone-building years.

"Just before the teen years, and all throughout adolescence, children must get enough calcium to provide the foundation for strong bones," says Jodie Shield, MEd, RD. "During this time, the body lays down nearly half of all the bone mass it will ever have."

How to get more calcium: Shield suggests offering children low-fat or flavored milks at every meal.

Count on getting 300 milligrams from 8 ounces of any type of milk (including lactose-free) or yogurt, or from 1.5 ounces of hard cheese (such as cheddar).

Orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D is a dairy-free option. Some children may need a supplement if they don't get enough from their diet.


High-fiber foods are packed with nutrients kids need. It also helps kids feel fuller and avoid constipation.

When part of a balanced diet, it helps head off type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol in adults, and may work for kids, too. Diets rich in fiber-filled foods may make heart disease later in life less likely.

How much fiber to get: How much your child needs depends on his or her age, according to the AAP.

Figure your child's daily fiber quota in grams by adding five to his age. For example, a 5-year-old should get 10 grams of daily dietary fiber.

How to get more: Serve a fruit or vegetable (or both) with meals and snacks. Opt for whole-grain breads and cereals, pasta, and other grains.

Also, serve legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and white beans in salads, soups, and omelets. Many of these foods provide potassium and magnesium, too.


Potassium ensures normal heart and muscle function, maintains fluid balance, participates in energy production, and promotes strong bones.

A potassium-rich diet helps head off high blood pressure in adults. Getting children in the habit of eating foods high in it may also help them keep blood pressure in check as they age.

"Kids, just like adults, don't eat enough of the fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are richest in potassium," says Bridget Swinney, RD.

How much potassium to get each day:

  • Ages 1-3: 3,000 milligrams
  • Ages 4-8: 3,800 milligrams
  • Ages 9-13: 4,500 milligrams
  • Ages 14-18: 4,700 milligrams

How to get more: Fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, meats, and seafood are good sources. In general, the more processed the food, the less potassium it provides, and the more sodium in a food, the lower the potassium.

To help your child get enough, serve at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack, and encourage your child to eat a balanced diet.

If you think your kids may not be getting enough of the nutrients they need, talk to their pediatrician. A diet low in processed foods and rich in produce, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy can help them -- and you -- get essential nutrients.

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