It’s not just parents of picky eaters — getting kids to eat foods that are good for them is a struggle many parents share, along with worries about their child’s nutrition. Some turn to dietary supplements to give their kids the nutrients they worry their child may be missing. But is that the best answer to the problem?

Not necessarily. Experts from the University of Michigan Health's C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital recommend a different approach: Before giving your children supplements that can be expensive and may offer little improvement or even provoke health issues, talk to your health care provider.

A poor diet can have negative effects on a child’s short- and long-term health, their behavior and their school performance. Feeding kids a variety of fruits and vegetables and age-appropriate portions of protein, carbohydrate and fiber, while limiting the intake of processed sugar, is the best way to ensure that a child gets the nutrients they need for optimal growth and development.

There is no FDA approval required for dietary supplements, so reliable information on the safety, effectiveness and side effects of nutritional supplements is limited.

When the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital conducted a poll on childhood eating issues and the use of dietary supplements in children, about half of the parents reported difficulty getting their child to eat a well-balanced diet.

Over a third of them expressed concern over their child’s picky eating behaviors, a similar percentage worried that their child did not eat enough fruits and vegetables. About 10 percent of the parents worried their kids’ eating habits meant they missed out on certain vitamins and minerals, or did not eat enough fiber.

Nearly half of the parents agreed that feeding their child a healthy diet was expensive; at the same time over half of those polled gave their child some sort of dietary supplement. Multivitamins were the most common supplement given, but others included probiotics to aid digestion, omega-3 fatty acids to support brain development, or a specific vitamin or mineral.

Dietary supplements are meant to improve upon the nutrients consumed through diet, and many parents decided their child wasn’t getting adequate nutrition and elected to give them a supplement. But they did so without discussing it with a health professional.

Nearly 60 percent of parents in higher income households reported that their child regularly took a supplement, and nearly 80 percent said they took care to choose one specifically formulated for kids, yet only about half of parents said they had talked about the issue with their child’s doctor. In lower-income households, 44 percent of parents gave their child a supplement regularly and 39 percent had discussed it with a doctor.

A poor diet can have negative effects on a child’s short- and long-term health, their behavior and their school performance.

There are many dietary supplements on the market that make claims about specific health benefits. Some of the factors parents said they considered when choosing a supplement for their child were how well it worked (82 percent), its potential side effects (87 percent) and its safety in children (85 percent). Most parents — 65 percent — considered the recommendation of their child’s doctor an important consideration.

Nearly 60 percent of parents said Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval was an important consideration, but what parents may not realize is there is no such thing as FDA approval for dietary supplements. The FDA classifies dietary supplements as food, so they are not subject to the same rigorous testing and approval as medicines. That means that reliable information on the safety, effectiveness and side effects of nutritional supplements is limited.

“To minimize the risks of supplement use, parents should share concerns about their child’s diet with a pediatrician who can help them identify the best strategies to improve the nutritional quality of their child’s diet and determine whether supplements are recommended,” Mott Poll co-director, Sarah Clark, suggested in a statement.

There may be other strategies for improving the nutritional quality of a child’s diet without the use of supplements, and a registered dietitian nutritionist has the training and expertise to discuss those with parents.

If a dietary supplement is deemed necessary, healthcare providers can help parents choose the right product and age-appropriate dose.

Healthcare providers should be proactive in discussing a child’s nutrition, asking about eating habits whether or not parents bring them up. Not all parents have the knowledge of what constitutes a healthy diet for a child, much less how to choose appropriate dietary supplements.

Read the full Mott poll report, “Healthy eating and use of dietary supplements in children,” here.