Iron is so important for kids, it provides energy and is absolutely vital for brain and learning development. It’s used in many bodily functions including the transport of oxygen in the blood and it’s essential for kids due to their enormous growth needs.
Yet the last Australian national health survey conducted in 2011-12 revealed that 10% of boys aged up to 2, and 15% of girls aged up to 2, had inadequate iron intake in their diet. The figures hover between 5-10% for kids up to 13 years of age with girls continuing to rate higher in iron deficient diets. Alarmingly a whopping 40% of girls aged 14-18 years had insufficient levels of iron in their diet.
Signs that a child might have low iron levels include repeat infections, irritability, loss of appetite, tiredness and weakness, increased sweating and pale skin, especially around the hands, nails, and eyelids. A child with low iron levels can go on to develop iron deficiency anemia. This can cause behavioral issues, poor learning and brain development and a failure to grow at the expected rate.
Babies : Iron needs to be a focus for children from 6 months of age. Newborn babies receive their iron stores from their mother whilst they are in the womb. These iron stores tend to last for 6 months so it’s really important to start supplementing breast milk or formula with iron rich foods at 6 months of age. Premature babies or babies born to mothers with low iron levels or anemia are susceptible to low iron levels.
This can then lead to toddlers with low iron stores if they didn’t have enough iron rich solids at 6 months due to exclusive breastfeeding or a vegetarian diet or simply a diet low in iron. It’s really important to ensure that toddlers have enough meat and iron rich food in their diet. Meat really does need to be introduced from 6 months to build those iron stores back up. Iron-rich plants contain a type of iron that’s harder for the body to absorb than the iron found in animal products so both are recommended for very young children. In addition to an iron rich diet, children who are supplemented with formula should be given an iron enriched solution. Cows milk should not be introduced until after 12 months.
Children under two years who have excessive intake of cows milk can also be low in iron as calcium reduces the absorption of iron. In addition, drinking excessive milk and fruit juice can displace a child’s appetite for iron containing foods.
Young Children have high requirements for iron because of their high growth rates and rapidly expanding blood volume. Yet they can also develop poor dietary habits during the preschool years, including insufficient intake of haem iron containing foods. Overconsumption of cow’s milk, and fruit juices need to be avoided. To prevent iron deficiency anemia young children should be given both haem and non-haem sources of iron.
Good sources of iron include: red meats, dark poultry, salmon, tuna, egg yolks, green leafy vegetables, dried peas and beans, molasses, dried fruits and raisins, and enriched whole-grain bread. Serve these alongside foods or drinks rich in vitamin C (tomatoes, broccoli, orange juice, strawberries, etc.), which improves the body’s absorption of iron. Iron fortified cereals are another great option for children who are picky eaters. Encourage solid foods at mealtimes and take care that toddlers are not ‘filling up’ on drinks between meals. Remember that chronic diarrhoea can deplete your child’s iron stores, while intestinal parasites such as worms can cause iron deficiency. See your doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment.
Always remember to avoid iron supplements for children unless advised by a doctor, as excessive iron intake by kids can be toxic and in some cases can lead to death. As with all nutrients, you should strive to meet the daily needs through diet not supplements.
Teenagers – adolescent girls are at risk because of a number of factors, including growth spurts at puberty, iron loss through periods (menstruation) and risk of under-nutrition due to fad dieting that restricts eating. It’s so important to ensure that they are eating iron rich foods. Talk to your child about the importance of iron. Help them become informed enough to make their own responsible food choices. Continue to strive for family meal time so that you can serve up iron rich food of an evening, and reduce their intake of caffeine which can reduce the absorption of iron. Again, serving iron rich foods alongside foods or drinks rich in vitamin C improves their body’s absorption of iron.
It is important that you see your doctor if you suspect your child may be iron deficient.
Recipe Ideas to increase iron in your child’s diet :
- Sprinkle Vitamin C rich Strawberries, kiwi fruit and blueberries onto your childs cereal for increased iron absorption
- Make your kids smoothies and mix in iron rich ingredients such as Banana, Spirulina, Spinach, Coconut, Avocado and sprouts
- Serve them iron rich vegetables alongside lean meat at meal time : potatoes, tomatoes, bok choy, broccoli, sweet peas, swiss chard
- Feed them iron rich snacks such as grapes and apricots
- Cook muffins and loafs and include iron rich ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, figs, chia seeds, broccoli, avocado, beetroot and almonds