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Nutritional Deficiencies in Children: Early Detection and Management Through Functional Medicine

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Nutritional Deficiencies in Children: Early Detection and Management Through Functional Medicine

Nutritional deficiencies and inadequacies are prevalent worldwide. Despite the abundance of food in America, a stark reality persists: approximately 44 million Americans grapple with hunger, and one in eight households confronts the persistent challenge of food insecurity. The 2007-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) reported a high prevalence of multiple nutritional inadequacies among the US population. 24% of young children do not meet daily recommendations for fruit intake, and 85% do not meet recommendations for vegetable intake (19). The importance of addressing nutritional deficiencies in children cannot be overstated, as they can significantly impact growth, development, and overall well-being. Recognizing the need for a comprehensive approach to pediatric nutrition, functional medicine emerges as a holistic paradigm that delves into the intricate connections between diet, physiology, and individual health. 


Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Children

Nutrient deficiency refers to a state in which the body does not receive an adequate amount of a specific essential nutrient required for optimal health. This can lead to a measurable and often clinically significant impairment in bodily functions. On the other hand, nutrient inadequacy is a broader term that signifies an insufficient intake of essential nutrients. The extent may not be severe enough to cause immediate health issues, but it may contribute to suboptimal functioning and potentially increase the risk of chronic diseases over time. (7, 10)

Children five years old and younger are one of the populations at highest risk for nutrient deficiencies (7). The most common nutritional deficiencies in childhood are iron, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber. Insufficient intake of vitamins A, C, and E; choline, and magnesium is also a concern for school-aged children. A child's nutritional foundation begins at conception and relies heavily on maternal nutrition status during pregnancy and lactation. Once the child has been weaned onto solid foods, nutrient-poor diets, food insecurity, and comorbid medical conditions that affect digestion and absorption (e.g., celiac disease) can influence pediatric nutritional status. (7, 9)

Signs and Symptoms of Nutritional Deficiencies

Children have greater nutritional needs than adults to grow and develop. Malnutrition deprives the body of the energy it needs to sustain itself. To compensate, it begins to break down fat and muscle. As such, malnourished children may experience significant weight loss, muscle wasting, impaired growth, and stunted development. (12

Essential nutrients play a crucial role in the functioning of various physiological systems. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, rendering children more susceptible to infections and poor wound healing. Nutrient deficiencies also negatively impact the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, renal, neurological, and integumentary body systems. Resulting organ dysfunction and impaired metabolic processes have far-reaching effects. Identifying nutritional deficiencies in children is crucial for early intervention, as pediatric malnutrition can have a lasting impact on a child's physical and cognitive development. (12, 18)

Signs and symptoms of poor nutrition in kids include (12, 18):

  • Delayed milestones
  • Growing pains 
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Cognitive deficits and learning disabilities
  • Overactivity and inattention (such as in ADHD
  • Irritability
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Low body temperature
  • Dry skin and rashes
  • Skin pallor
  • Anemia

Lab Testing and Diagnostic Tools in Functional Medicine

Functional medicine employs an array of lab tests and diagnostic tools to identify and address nutritional deficiencies in children. Blood tests are a cornerstone of functional medicine diagnostics to provide insights into nutritional status. These tests assess nutrient status by measuring vitamin and mineral concentrations in the blood, offering valuable information on deficiencies or imbalances. For example, 25-OH vitamin D, by US Biotek, and ferritin, by Access Medical Labs, are the standard markers used to assess vitamin D and iron levels, respectively. When possible, it is advised to order blood spot testing for children. This is a minimally invasive method of blood collection that involves obtaining a small amount of blood, usually a few drops, from a fingertip or heel prick. This method is preferred in pediatrics for several reasons, including its reduced invasiveness, lower risk of complications, and greater ease of collection than traditional venipuncture.

Functional medicine practitioners may also utilize more specialized tests, such as micronutrient panels, which evaluate a spectrum of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids within the body. These panels typically utilize various lab methods to measure intra- and extracellular nutrient concentrations to reflect the patient's functional nutrition status better. Given the comprehensive nature of these panels, they often require a larger blood volume for testing. Consequently, blood spot testing may not be an option, and certain labs may enforce age restrictions. For example, the Cellular Micronutrient Assay by Cell Science Systems can only be ordered for patients 9 and older. On the other hand, Genova Diagnostic's NutrEval FMV can be ordered for patients over the age of 2.


Functional Medicine Approach to Nutritional Assessment

Functional medicine practitioners prioritize a holistic nutritional assessment for children that extends beyond merely testing specific nutrient levels. They emphasize the importance of considering the whole child, considering factors such as dietary intake, digestive health, and family health history. This holistic approach recognizes the interconnectedness of various physiological systems and how they contribute to a child's overall well-being.

Functional medicine doctors delve into a child's dietary habits, scrutinizing nutritional intake to identify potential gaps or imbalances. Moreover, they assess digestive health, recognizing that nutrient absorption directly influences nutritional status. Family health history is also considered, as genetic predispositions can affect a child's nutritional needs and vulnerabilities. As such, in addition to testing for levels of specific nutrients of concern, functional medicine doctors may incorporate additional testing methods into comprehensive health assessment to provide a more in-depth understanding of a child's nutritional status and reveal insights into why deficiencies may be present. For example, a comprehensive stool analysis, such as the GI Effects® Comprehensive Profile - 1 day by Genova Diagnostics, is an excellent screening tool for gut-related issues affecting nutrient absorption and utilization. Functional medicine offers a deeper understanding of a child's health, guiding targeted interventions to address deficiencies comprehensively.

Nutritional Interventions in Functional Medicine

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize establishing healthy dietary patterns early in life. The guidelines stress the importance of breastfeeding as the preferred source of nutrition because it can meet nutrient needs for the first six months of life, except for vitamin D and iron. To prevent these deficiencies, it is recommended to supplement 400 IU daily soon after birth. Additionally, exclusively breast-fed infants should be supplemented with 1 mg/kg of oral iron daily beginning at 4 months of age until iron-containing complementary foods are introduced into the diet. Iron-fortified infant formula is recommended for babies who are not breastfed. As infants transition to solid foods, the guidelines suggest introducing a variety of nutrient-dense options, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean proteins, while avoiding foods with added sugars and excess sodium, to meet recommended caloric and nutrient intakes based on age, gender, size, and activity level. A varied, whole-food diet promotes healthy eating patterns associated with reduced risk of chronic disease and nutrient deficiencies. (3, 21

Functional medicine practitioners recognize the unique nutritional requirements of each child and employ a comprehensive approach that goes beyond one-size-fits-all recommendations. Considering factors such as dietary preferences, cultural beliefs, and digestive health, these customized plans address existing deficiencies and work proactively to prevent future nutritional imbalances. This approach allows for targeted interventions, ensuring that children receive the precise nutrients they require for optimal growth and development. 

Dietary supplementation becomes imperative in the pediatric population when nutritional needs cannot be adequately met through diet alone. Various factors, such as individual dietary preferences, allergies, and medical conditions, may hinder the ability to obtain essential nutrients solely from food sources. In such cases, dietary supplements provide a targeted and reliable means of ensuring that children receive the necessary vitamins and minerals for optimal growth and development. Examples include multivitamins, vitamin D, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. Probiotics may also be considered for patients with underlying gut problems leading to malabsorption. By tailoring dietary recommendations to the individual child, personalized plans in pediatric nutrition exemplify a nuanced and effective strategy for promoting long-term health and well-being.

Educating Families and Caregivers

Ensuring optimal pediatric nutrition involves not only addressing nutrient deficiencies but also empowering families and caregivers with the knowledge and tools to foster healthy eating habits in children. Education is crucial in this process, emphasizing the importance of a balanced and nutrient-rich diet. Strategies for imparting nutritional knowledge to families include interactive workshops, informative pamphlets, and one-on-one consultations with healthcare professionals. By offering practical tips on meal planning, introducing diverse food groups, and making informed choices at the grocery store, caregivers can better navigate the complexities of childhood nutrition. To make these changes sustainable, providing family-friendly resources, such as easy-to-follow recipes, snack ideas, and guidelines for age-appropriate portion sizes is essential. (16

In addition to nutritional education, government programs play a pivotal role in supporting families in need. Initiatives such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are crucial resources. SNAP provides financial assistance to low-income families to purchase nutritious food, offering flexibility in food choices to accommodate diverse dietary needs. WIC targets pregnant women, new mothers, and young children, providing tailored support with essential nutrients, counseling, and educational resources. These programs alleviate financial constraints and complement nutritional education efforts by ensuring families have access to wholesome and nutritious food. (20

Monitoring and Follow-Up

Regular monitoring and follow-up ensure the success of nutritional interventions in pediatric populations. Routine assessments enable healthcare professionals to gauge the effectiveness of dietary plans and make necessary adjustments to meet evolving nutritional needs. Clinical markers such as growth parameters and developmental milestones are critical indicators of a child's development. Tracking these metrics allows for the early identification of growth concerns and potential nutritional deficiencies. Repeat lab testing provides quantitative data to offer insights into treatment plan efficacy. Regular check-ups create opportunities for healthcare providers to address emerging problems, provide ongoing education to parents and caregivers, and adapt nutritional strategies to meet the child's changing needs.


Nutritional Deficiencies in Children: Key Takeaways

Emphasizing early intervention in child nutrition through a functional medicine approach is paramount for ensuring optimal health in this population. This proactive stance involves early detection and management of nutritional deficiencies, addressing specific needs through personalized dietary plans and targeted interventions. Functional medicine practitioners can identify and rectify potential deficiencies before they escalate to disease by utilizing a holistic approach that considers the interconnected aspects of a child's health, including dietary habits, digestive health, and family history. This approach aims to prevent health issues and sets the foundation for lifelong well-being.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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Lab Tests in This Article


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