You may well have heard vitamin D being referred to as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin. This is because most of it comes not in the foods we eat, but from the action of sunlight on our skin where ultraviolet rays convert an inactive form of this vitamin into its active form.
Only then is vitamin D available to help the calcium in our diet to build and maintain strong bones, muscles and teeth in growing children and teenagers, as well as adults.
In the UK is ultraviolet light is only strong enough to ‘activate’ vitamin D between the months of April to September. During autumn and winter months, we rely on our ‘summer stores’ to see us through.
Studies reveal however that most of us simply don’t manage to build up sufficient vitamin D in summer to tide us over. Not only this, but our regular National Diet and Nutrition Surveys also reveal poor dietary intakes in all population groups. In other words, we’re not getting enough of the small number of foods that do help us to boost levels from dietary sources.
These two factors combined explain why the Department of Health recommend vitamin D supplements are given to all children, all year round from six months to five years of age. An exception is made for babies and toddlers fed on formula milk, which is fortified with vitamin D. Once children are drinking less than 500ml a day of formula though, supplementation should begin.
After the age of five, all children, teenagers and adults for that matter should continue to supplement during winter months. In addition, the government advises that anyone who spends little time playing outside, has darker skin tones and always covers up when outdoors, is again recommended to supplement all year round. For women who are pregnant and breastfeeding and for everyone over 65, this all-year round supplementation advice also stands.
I understand completely that as parents and carers, we have a strong temptation to feel that a ‘healthy balanced diet’ will always do the trick when aiming for good nutrition.
With vitamin D, this is almost certainly not the case and for the sake of your children’s fast growing bones and muscles, it is just not worth the gamble.