updated 4/13/2005 6:34:09 PM ET 2005-04-13T22:34:09

Lowfat diets might be fine for adults, but at least one small study suggests grown-ups using that approach for their families could be depriving young children of vitamins they need.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln nutrition scientist Judy Driskell said her recent study of preschool children living in Lincoln found two-thirds of them lacking the recommended levels of vitamin E and one-third short on vitamin C — a finding attributed mainly to parents sharing their eating habits with their children.

“Parents are eating a lot of lowfat and nonfat products, and we’re finding they also give their children such things as skim milk,” Driskell said. “The lowfat diet is probably associated with their being low in vitamin E.”

Some child nutrition experts expressed shock at the study’s findings, noting that vitamin deficiencies — particularly of vitamin C — are considered uncommon in the United States.

“It doesn’t take that much fresh fruit intake ... to get a recommended daily allowance of vitamin C,” said Dr. Terrill Bravender, director of adolescent medicine at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.

Bravender also noted debate in the medical field about how much vitamin E is needed for good health, particularly for young children.

No deficiency symptoms
Driskell and colleagues from the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources tested major antioxidant vitamin levels, which include vitamins and C, in children ages 2-5 at four Lincoln day care centers. They tested blood samples from 22 ethnically diverse boys and girls — the only ones whose parents gave permission for the study.

The ideal levels of vitamins E and C were based on recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences and adjusted by Driskell for children. What the UNL researchers found was that many suffered borderline deficiencies.

“Their blood values were low, but the children did not have deficiency symptoms that would affect skin, eyes, and that kind of thing,” Driskell said. “They were at the point that they could be treated using food or vitamin supplements.”

Parents of the children also were interviewed about their children’s diets.

Besides the parents’ tendency to give the children lowfat foods, researchers found day care centers serving potato chips and other unhealthy snacks, Driskell said. Some centers reported avoiding serving fresh fruit for fear the children might suffer food allergies, she said.

Nutritionists recommend young children regularly have whole milk, nuts and seeds, regular salad dressings, and whole-grain cereals fortified with vitamins to get vitamin E. They also recommend regular consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and small amounts — 3 to 6 ounces — of citrus juice.

But some like Dr. Lilian Cheung at the Harvard School of Public Health disagreed with Driskell’s suggestion that children take a multivitamin, noting that supplements can’t replace foods rich in vitamins and minerals.

Bravender also challenged Driskell’s recommendation for children to drink fruit juice, noting that fresh fruits and vegetables provide vitamin C without the high number of calories found in juice.

“The major public health epidemic that’s facing our country right now is childhood obesity, not vitamin C deficiency,” Bravender said.

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