Got vitamin D?

Happy mother child

Does living up north cause children’s vitamin D levels to head south? And what about children living below the Mason-Dixon line? Do they get enough vitamin D?

Researchers are reporting a resurgence in vitamin D deficiency among children throughout the United States but especially among black children living in northern latitudes. So Emory pediatrician Conrad Cole and his colleagues wanted to find out if black and Hispanic children living in the Southeast were also coming up short on this important micronutrient.

What Cole and his colleagues found was that nearly a quarter of low-income, minority children, especially those younger than 3, were deficient in vitamin D. However, those children tested during the spring and summer seasons were less likely to be deficient than children tested during winter and fall. What’s more, a larger proportion of black children than Hispanic children were deficient in the vitamin. Researchers attribute this difference in part to a greater intake of D-fortified milk by Hispanic children.

For all children, a lack of vitamin D is associated with increased lifetime risk for developing illnesses including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and rickets (the failure of bones to mineralize and thus harden). The good news is that humans need only tiny amounts of micronutrients to thrive.

“The majority of the necessary vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight,” says Cole. “Dietary intake alone is unlikely to provide the daily recommended amount of vitamin D needed to prevent deficiency. However, micronutrient deficiencies are not something you see immediately. If you don’t test for it, you don’t know there’s a deficiency until it’s overt.”

By the time the signs of a deficiency become obvious, damage has already been done, and some of this damage is irreversible. That is, brain growth and neural development have been compromised, and so has the immune system. “If children are chronically impaired, even if the deficit is reversed, that doesn’t correct all of the issues,” says Cole.

Because so little vitamin D is needed, deficiencies can be avoided early on by combining diet choices with safe exposure to the sun. —Robin Tricoles

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