Importance of Iron in children’s diet
Iron is a nutrient that is essential to your child’s growth and development. Iron is a mineral that’s needed to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells.
Red blood cells circulate throughout the body to deliver oxygen to all its cells. Without enough iron, the body can’t make enough Red blood cells, and tissues and organs won’t get the oxygen they need. If your child’s diet lacks iron, he or she might develop a condition called iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency in children can occur at many levels, from depleted iron stores to anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Untreated iron deficiency in children can cause physical and mental delays.
How much Iron does your child need?
Babies up to the age of 6 months who breastfeed get enough iron from their mothers. Formula-fed infants should receive iron-fortified formula.
Babies at the ages of 7-12 months need 11 milligrams of iron a day.
Toddlers need 7 milligrams of iron each day.
Kids ages 4-8 years need 10 milligrams of iron each day.
Kids ages 9-13 years need 8 milligrams of iron each day.
Adolescent boys should be getting 11 milligrams of iron a day and adolescent girls should be getting 15 milligrams of iron each day.
Young athletes who regularly engage in intense exercise tend to lose more iron and may require extra iron in their diets.
Should I worry about Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency is when the body’s iron stores are becoming depleted. This is a concern for toddlers and adolescents (especially females who have heavy periods and athletes).
After 12 months of age, toddlers are at risk for iron deficiency because they no longer drink iron-fortified formula and may not be eating enough iron-containing foods to make up the difference.
Drinking a lot of cow’s milk (more than 710 milliliters every day) can also put a toddler at risk of developing iron deficiency. Here’s why:
- Cow’s milk is low in iron.
- Kids, especially toddlers, who drink a lot of cow’s milk may be less hungry and less likely to eat iron-rich foods.
- Milk decreases the absorption of iron.
Iron deficiency can affect growth and may lead to learning and behavioural problems.
Many people with iron-deficiency anemia don’t have any signs and symptoms because the body’s iron supply is depleted slowly. But as the anemia progresses, some of these symptoms may appear:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Pale skin and mucous membranes
- Rapid heartbeat
- Decreased appetite
- Dizziness or a feeling of being light headed
- Slow cognitive and social development
- Inflammation of the tongue
- Difficulty maintaining body temperature
- Increased likelihood of infections (poor immune system)
- Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or pure starch
If your child has any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor, who might do a simple blood test to look for iron-deficiency anemia and may prescribe iron supplements. However, because excessive iron intake can also cause health problems, you should never give your child iron supplements without first consulting your doctor.
Infants and children at highest risk of iron deficiency include:
- Babies who are born prematurely — more than three weeks before their due date — or have a low birth weight
- Babies who drink cow’s milk before age 1
- Breast-fed babies who aren’t given complementary foods containing iron after age 6 months
- Babies who drink formula that isn’t fortified with iron
- Children ages 1 to 5 who drink more than 710 milliliters of cow’s milk, goat’s milk or soy milk a day
- Children who have certain health conditions, such as chronic infections or restricted diets
- Children ages 1 to 5 who have been exposed to lead
- Adolescent girls also are at higher risk of iron deficiency because their bodies lose iron during menstruation.
Animal sources and plant sources of iron: What’s the difference?
Heme iron – the kind you get from animal sources such as meat, seafood, and poultry – is easily absorbed by the body. The body needs help to absorb non-heme iron, which is the kind found in non-animal sources like dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, fortified bread and grains, and dried fruit. (Egg yolks contain mostly non-heme iron.)
You can increase the amount of non-heme iron the body absorbs by serving it with foods that contain heme iron or with foods rich in vitamin C, such as orange juice, oranges, strawberries, red and green bell peppers, papaya, broccoli, grapefruit, cantaloupe, tomatoes, broccoli, mangoes, kiwi fruit and sweet potatoes.
Foods that contain iron include:
dried beans and peas
leafy green vegetables
iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Here are other ways you can make sure kids get enough iron:
- Limit their milk intake
- Continue serving iron-fortified cereal until kids are 18-24 months old.
- Serve iron-rich foods alongside foods containing vitamin C — such as tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, and strawberries — which improves the body’s absorption of iron.
***Although it’s essentially impossible to get too much iron from food, supplements are another matter. Excessive iron from supplements can be toxic to children, causing serious health problems or even death. Please consult with a doctor or nutritionist before self prescribing an iron supplement.
It is important to keep iron supplements tightly capped and away from children. Even 200 mg of iron may be fatal in children. Call your health care provider, poison control center or emergency room immediately if you suspect a child has taken an excess amount of iron.
Have a Nutritious week,