The National Pre-School Nutrition Survey (NPNS) investigated the eating habits of 500 young children in Ireland aged between one to four years (i.e. from the age of 12 months up to their fifth birthday)1. Four-day weighed food diaries were used to collect detailed food and beverage consumption data from these children.
Findings from the study showed that for the most part, Irish pre-school children are well nourished, and their diet meets dietary recommendations for most nutrients. However, from the survey 23% of one-year olds, 10% of two-year olds and 11% of three-year olds were not getting enough iron in their diets. The RDA for iron for toddlers is 7mg per day.
The survey also indicated that a significant proportion of children may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, particularly in winter. Overall daily vitamin D intakes were quite low with 70-84% of those aged between one and four consuming less than 5 µg (200 IU) per day1. The RDA for vitamin D for toddlers is 10 µg per day.
Babies and toddlers are at particular risk of iron deficiency due to high demands for iron during periods of rapid growth. Relative to their size, toddlers need nearly five times more iron than a grown man2. A significant number of Irish toddlers may not be getting enough iron in their diets as detailed above.
There is a large body of research from over the past number of years, emphasising the importance of protecting the developing brain from iron deficiency. Iron deficiency in toddlers may have long lasting detrimental effects on neurodevelopment and behaviour.
Iron plays a major role in the body’s use of oxygen. Toddlers have increased requirements for iron to support their expanding red cell mass and growing body tissues.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently published Scientific Recommendations for Food-Based Dietary Guidelines for 1 to 5 year-olds in Ireland6. This report includes the following recommendations:
Toddlers have very rapid rates of bone growth. Peak bone mass accrual may not be achieved in children and adolescents with sub optimal Vitamin D levels7. A large number of Irish toddlers are likely to be at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, particularly in winter. Results from the National Pre-School Nutrition Survey1 showed that 70 – 84% of 1–4 year olds were consuming less than 5 µg Vitamin D per day. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for toddlers is 10 µg.
As well as being essential for bone health, it is possible that Vitamin D deficiency may be associated with a wide range of medical conditions including autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer and cardiovascular disease8. Research is ongoing in this area. Many cells and tissues in the body carry a Vitamin D receptor (VDR) and further research into the health effects of Vitamin D is ongoing.
Data from the NPNS1 indicate that daily vitamin D intake in most Irish children is much less than 10 μg: mean daily intake of children aged 1–4 years was 3.5 μg, and 93% of children in this age group had intakes below 10 μg/day9. Similarly, in 2-year-olds from the prospective Cork BASELINE Birth Cohort Study, the mean daily intake of vitamin D was 3.5 μg, and 96% had vitamin D intakes <10 μg/day10.
This is supported by modelling undertaken for the FSAI Scientific Recommendations for Food-Based Dietary Guidelines for 1 to 5 year-olds in Ireland6 report, which shows that all children aged 1–5 years had inadequate intakes of vitamin D.
Studies in young children aged 1–5 years in Ireland show that the key food sources of vitamin D among consumers are vitamin D-fortified milks (particularly in 1–2 year-olds), fortified yogurts, nutritional supplements, fresh and processed meat, fortified breakfast cereals and eggs9.
During the summer, most young Irish children get enough vitamin D through diet and through the effect of sunlight on the skin. Therefore in order to ameliorate seasonal decline in vitamin D status during the winter months, oral intake from fortified foodstuffs is advantageous.
A low-dose vitamin D-only supplement (5 μg) is recommended for all 1–5year olds from Halloween to St Patrick’s Day (i.e. during the extended winter months)6,11.