Over the past two decades, we’ve been bombarded with information about protecting our skin with sunscreen and staying in the shade to decrease skin cancer risk and sun damage. Yet, guarding ourselves and our children carefully presents an issue: without direct sun exposure, our bodies cannot properly manufacture vitamin D.
A hormone necessary for many essential body functions, vitamin D is produced naturally when skin is exposed to sunlight.
There’s no doubt that the sun can harm skin if you get too much exposure over time. But it’s important to remember that humans evolved under the sun, and vitamin D is a nutrient we all need.
Most adults, children and babies in the U.S. aren’t getting enough sun exposure to maintain healthy vitamin D levels, especially those living north of Atlanta, Ga. Add to that aggressive sun protection, and vitamin D deficiency could become a real issue.
So how can you ensure your kids are getting enough vitamin D? You can start by increasing their intake of vitamin D-rich foods. Those with the highest amounts include:
Fatty fish (such as salmon, cod, tuna and sardines)
It’s a rather short list—which was fine, evolutionarily, because humans got their vitamin D from the sun. Today, however, these foods aren’t appealing to everyone (especially kids!), and people can’t eat them safely in large enough quantities to support healthy D levels. As a result, many foods now are fortified with vitamin D. These include:
Step it up with supplements
Even if your family eats many of these fortified foods, it may be difficult still to reach recommended intake amounts of vitamin D. Children and babies need 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily. Food-wise, they’d have to consume about 16.6 cups of milk or 14.5 cups of fortified orange juice. Besides being difficult, if not impossible, to do — think about how unhealthy it would be! Weight gain and digestive issues are just two problems that may arise.
Luckily, vitamin D supplements are widely available and inexpensive, making it easy to increase intake safely. Simply add a drop or two of a liquid supplement to your child’s water, juice or food. I like to leave my bottles in the bathroom, so I remember to give drops every day at bath time. As babies are learning to take liquid from a dropper, they tend to get it all over themselves — so being in the bath tub already makes for easy clean up!
If you’re breastfeeding, keep in mind that breast milk contains very little vitamin D, even for mothers who are taking supplements. Formula doesn’t contain much of this essential nutrient, either. Before giving your baby or child a vitamin D supplement, be sure to check with your pediatrician.