Parents in India are constantly worried about Vitamins.
“Does my child have vitamin deficiency?”
“Should I give my child vitamin supplements?”
“What will happen if my child does not get enough vitamins?”
These are some of the questions that parents are constantly asking.
Vitamins of course are vital for children to live a healthy life, but it is very important to understand the role of each vitamin in the body of the child if we are to keep our children healthy.
Why is Vitamin A important?
One of the most important vitamins in the body is Vitamin A. Vitamin A is as indispensable to the normal functioning of the body as the letter ‘a’ is – to the formation of words in the English language. Just like almost every word needs the letter in its midst to make sense – almost every cell in the body needs vitamin A to function normally.
Vitamin A is essential for the normal functioning and maintenance of almost every cell in every organ of the body. When Vitamin A in not present in just the right amounts and quantities in the body, the body is unable to function normally.
Why do children need Vitamin A?
- Children need Vitamin A to see properly – Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness. In India thousands of children used to go blind before the government started giving children a compulsory dose of Vitamin A along with the vaccines in the universal immunization program
- Children need vitamin A to stay safe from infections Vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential to keep the immune system functioning well. When children have sufficient quantities of Vitamin A in the body they do not suffer from infections. Vitamin A in fact is called the anti-infective vitamin. Vitamin A keeps the outer most layer of the skin intact and prevents germs from entering the body. The few germs that enter are killed by the cells of the immune system. and these cells also require vitamin A to remain in good working condition.
- Children need Vitamin A to grow. Since vitamin A plays a role in every cell – as a child grows – every new cell needs vitamin A to be complete. And therefore vitamin A plays a very important role in growth as well. Growing children in India are often diagnosed with vitamin deficiencies and one of the commonest deficiencies is Vitamin A deficiency
How do children develop vitamin A deficiency?
Indian parents – especially those from affluent families where there is no shortage of food often assume that their children will not have vitamin deficiencies – but this is a mistake.
Affluence unfortunately has not reduced the incidence of Vitamin deficiencies. Although parents in India earn well and have greater purchasing power than ever before – their children are still vitamin A deficient. Even children who have almost everything available to eat may be deficient in Vitamin A because they eat restrictive diets or junk food diets. When children eat a restrictive diet it means that they are eating the same food over and over again at every meal. As a result of this they get only one set of nutrients and develop deficiencies of other nutrients. This can be worse if the food eaten at every meal happens to be a junk food. Children who eat only junk food get only calories and no nutrients and are very likely to develop deficiencies including Vitamin A deficiencies.
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What are the signs and symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency?
- Repeated severe illness – One of the first signs of Vitamin A deficiency is repeated severe illness. Especially illnesses involving the respiratory system and the gastrointestinal system.If you find therefore that your child is repeatedly getting coughs and colds, which are turning into bacterial infections and requiring treatment with antibiotics – you should suspect that your child is vitamin A deficient.Also a running nose turning into an ear infection or a cold turning into a lung infection like pneumonia should alert you towards deficiency of vitamin A.
- Dry scaly skin – A classical finding in vitamin A deficiency is dry scaly skin. In medical terminology – we call such skin toad skin. If you find that your child has such skin – consult your doctor and ask him if he thinks your child is vitamin A deficient.
- Kidney stones – Stones in the kidney or urinary bladder – although uncommon in children – do occur and must immediately alert us and make us suspect vitamin A deficiency
- Difficulty seeing in the dark – Once real deficiency sets in and there is a marked actual deficiency of vitamin A in the body – children begin to find it difficult to see in the dark. This is because vitamin A is required to help produce a certain pigment in the eye – that we cannot see in the dark without.
- Dry eye and blindness – When vitamin A drops to seriously low levels in the body of a child – the child develops xeropthalmia or dry eye – which is just a few steps away from causing complete blindness in the child. Worldwide Vitamin A deficiency is one of the commonest causes of blindness in children. It is one of the few forms of blindness that can actually be prevented by giving a dose of vitamin A at the right time.
Which Indian foods are the best sources of Vitamin A?
Vitamin A is available from plant and animal sources
- Foods from animal sources that are rich in Vitamin A – When taken in from animal sources – vitamin A can be obtained in its actual form which is called retinal. Because it is almost identical to the vitamin A that the human body needs – it is absorbed very well from animal sources. Rich sources of vitamin A are cod liver oil shark liver oil and liver. Moderately good sources of vitamin A are butter ghee egg yolk.When a vitamin A rich animal source is eaten – 90% of the Vitamin A present in that food is absorbed by our bodies.
- Foods from plants that are rich in Vitamin A – When a vitamin A rich fruit or vegetable is eaten 70% of the vitamin present in it is absorbed.The best way to eat Vitamin A rich vegetables is – after cooking them in oil. Oil helps the body to absorb carotenes more easily and thereby get a larger amount of Vitamin A from those foods.One of the richest sources of carotene is red palm oil Red palm oil should be included in the diet of vegetarians if possible.The plant sources of vitamin A are carrots, green leafy vegetables, yellow and red vegetables and ripe mangoes. These fruits and vegetables contain Carotene which is converted into vitamin A by our bodies.
Also read Why does my child not eat vegetables
Vitamin A rich foods for vegetarians – carrots, green leafy vegetables, yellow and red vegetables and ripe mangoes, red palm oil, butter and ghee
Vitamin A rich foods for non vegetarians – cod liver oil shark liver oil, liver and egg yolk.
How should Vitamin A rich foods be cooked and eaten?
- Cook Vitamin A rich food in a moderate quantity of oil. Oil helps the vitamin to move from the food into the cells of the body
- Make sure your child gets enough of the mineral zinc in his diet. Zinc is required for the body to utilize the vitamin A that it picks up from the food. Zinc is present in nuts, seeds like sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds and dry fruits. Combine Vitamin A rich foods with these foods which are a rich source of zinc
- When a child has diarrhea or worms or suffers from coughs colds or viral infections – reach out to your doctor for a vitamin supplement. Sick children cannot absorb vitamin A from food very easily. Don’t rely on food for vitamin A when a child is sick.
Do babies need Vitamin A supplements?
Newborn babies usually have enough Vitamin A in their bodies because they actively accumulate large quantities of Vitamin A from the mother during the last trimester of pregnancy.
Breastfed babies are also safe from vitamin A deficiency because breast milk contains very high levels of Vitamin A.
Babies who are bottle-fed may need close monitoring of their vitamin A levels to detect deficiencies early.
Vitamin A deficiency begins to set in once babies cross the 6 months mark and move from exclusive breastfeeding to a solid diet. Proper weaning is a must to prevent Vitamin A deficiency.
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How is Vitamin A deficiency treated?
If you are self-treating vitamin A deficiency – stick only to vitamin A rich foods for Vitamin A.
Treating vitamin A deficiency with drugs can be quite complicated and must be undertaken only by a doctor.
Vitamin A can quickly reach levels higher than what is required by the body and this can result in Vitamin A toxicity or hypervitaminosis.
Deficiency of Vitamin A is usually treated with an oral dose of Vitamin A given by the doctor as per age of the child – with follow-up doses given if required
What are the signs of Vitamin A toxicity?
In the acute stages hypervitaminosis can manifest with headache vomiting and dizziness.
And when hypervitaminosis persists – it can cause loss of appetite, dry itchy skin, weight loss, painful extremities, sparse hair, anemia and major diseases of the liver and spleen
How can I prevent Vitamin A deficiency?
It is most important to prevent Vitamin A deficiency. Infants who are not breastfed must be given a dose of Vitamin A in consultation with the doctor.
In areas where Vitamin A deficiency is commonly reported – the government of India has made Vitamin A part of the immunization schedule.
It is recommended that every infant must be given a dose of Vitamin A along with the measles vaccine at 9 months.
Children must eat vitamin A rich food that are locally available. Green leafy vegetables yellow and orange vegetables like pumpkin carrots papaya mango oranges cereals and pulses.
Non vegetarian sources of vitamin A are milk, milk products, egg and liver must be eaten by all those who can eat them.
Special attention must be paid to children who are sick – and they must be given Vitamin A under the supervision of a doctor to avoid deficiency
Also read Why does my child not eat vegetables?
Vitamin A deficiency can be dangerous. Be aware. Be safe.
Read more on Vitamin A deficiencies here