What is dietary iron and why is it important?
Just as iron is used to build strong structures in our physical world, dietary iron is used to build strong blood. Iron is an essential component of our hemoglobin, a protein in our red blood cells used to carry oxygen through our body. It is also a component of myoglobin, which is similar to hemoglobin in that it stores oxygen for use in the muscles. Additionally, iron has a number of other functions within the body including energy production, and in the making of DNA.
Is my child at risk of iron deficiency?
Children are at higher risk of developing iron deficiency. This is because of their increased need for iron during periods of growth and inadequate intake of dietary iron (due to poor appetite, picky eating, or a vegetarian/vegan diet). Children who were born premature or at a low birth weight are also at risk, as are exclusively breastfed babies who haven’t had iron-rich foods introduced at 6 months of age.
If your toddler drinks a large amount of cow’s milk each day (i.e. more than 24 ounces/720 ml per day), this can also put them at risk of developing low iron because the calcium in the milk can interfere with absorption of iron in the gut.
Children with illnesses which affect nutrient absorption or that cause gastrointestinal blood loss, such as undiagnosed celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, respectively, are also at risk of having low iron.
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in kids
Without enough dietary iron, our body’s iron reserves will eventually become depleted and a deficiency can occur. Iron deficiency anemia means that the blood does not have enough iron to carry sufficient oxygen throughout the body. As a result, you may notice the following signs and symptoms:
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Unusual cravings (non-food cravings such as ice or dirt)
- Poor appetite
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
If you suspect iron deficiency in either you or your child, your talk to your family doctor. They will be able to tell for sure by ordering some bloodwork.
How much iron do your kids need?
The following amount of iron is recommended each day for children.
- Babies (7-12 months): 11 mg/day
- Children (1-3 years): 7 mg/day
- Children (4-8 years): 10 mg/day
- Children (9-13 years): 8 mg/day
- Teen Boys (14-18 years): 11 mg/day
- Teen girls (14-18 years): 15 mg/day
If your child has iron deficiency, they will likely need a bit more each day to replenish iron to normal levels (this is why many times iron supplements are necessary). Please note that it’s best not to take an iron supplement until it has been recommended by your doctor.
Heme vs non-heme iron
While there are plenty plant and animal-derived foods that contain iron, not all of these sources of dietary iron are equal. Iron from animal sources (called heme iron), such as from meat, poultry and seafood, is much better absorbed than iron from plant sources (called non-heme iron). That being said, plant-based (non-heme) iron is quite abundant and many times our meals contain much more non-heme iron, than heme iron. So even though iron from plants isn’t absorbed as well, it can still play an important role in maintaining our iron levels.
Iron-rich foods your kids will love
Whether you are looking to boost your child’s poor iron intake or just make sure they are getting enough, the following foods are a good place to start.
For meat eaters, animal proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, and seafood are great sources of well absorbed iron. Many kids, especially little kids, may find dishes made with ground meats, or tender, slow cooked meats easier to eat.
For those kids that aren’t big meat eaters, the following foods are good sources of iron:
Fortified cereals (per serving = 4-6 mg iron)
Many hot and cold cereals are fortified with iron and they can be an easy way to ensure your child is getting iron at breakfast time (or whatever time they eat cereal!). Be sure to check the ingredient list or the nutrition label to ensure your cereal of choice is fortified with iron.
Pumpkin seeds (¼ cup = 4.6 mg iron)
A quarter cup of these crunchy little seeds provides a good dose of iron. Try adding roasted pumpkin seeds to trail mix, adding them to baked goods or to a homemade granola. For smaller children, you can try chopping the seeds up (or grinding them works, too) and adding them to hot cereals.
Lentils (½ cup = 3.5 mg iron)
Lentils are a great choice for plant-based iron. They are a pretty versatile little legume that can be cooked quickly, compared to other dried beans (the canned versions are good, too!). Lentils can easily be added into soups, stews, and pasta sauces which makes them an easy way to boost your kiddo’s iron intake.
Spinach (½ cup cooked = 3.4 mg iron)
While most kids probably won’t sit down to eat a plate of spinach, it can be cooked and added to a number of dishes. If your youngster is particular about their food, try pureeing spinach and adding a bit to soups or pasta sauces as the pureed spinach won’t change the taste or texture of the food too much.
Hummus (½ cup = 3.2 mg iron)
Not only are chickpeas a good source of iron (½ cup = 2.5 mg iron) but the tahini, or sesame paste, used to make hummus also contains iron (1 tablespoon = 1.3 mg iron). That’s why hummus is a great choice for kids who need a little extra of this important mineral. Hummus is a great food for kids of all ages, it’s easy to eat (i.e. doesn’t require a lot of teeth) and can be spread on toast, or served with crackers or veggies for dipping.
Edamame (½ cup shelled = 2.4 mg iron)
A ½ cup of shelled edamame, or immature green soybeans, is not only a good source of iron but also a good source of protein. Since you can find frozen edamame in most grocery stores and because they take very little time to prepare, edamame are a super convenient, iron-rich food to have of hand.
Hemp seeds (2 tbsp = 2.3 mg iron)
Just 2 tablespoons of these mild, little seeds contains 2.3 mg of iron. Hemp seeds can easily be added to hot cereal or baked goods without your kiddo noticing too much.
Tomato puree, canned (½ cup = 2.2 mg iron)
While fresh tomatoes do contain some iron, cooked and pureed tomatoes contain much more because of being a concentrated product. So, the canned or jarred tomato sauce you buy for pasta is, surprisingly, a good source of iron. What’s more, is that tomatoes are also a great source of vitamin C which helps our body absorb plant-based iron.
Cashews (¼ cup = 2.1 mg)
Cashews are not only a good source of iron, but they are also a great energy source for active kids. Cashews make a great portable snack for those times when your kids are on the go. Younger kids, however, may do better with cashew butter due to choking risk.
Dried apricots (½ cup = 1.24 mg)
Dried fruit, and in particular dried apricots, are a good source of dietary iron. While dried fruit may not be a great selection for smaller kids, bigger kids can manage their chewy texture just fine. Dried apricots can be enjoyed by themselves or incorporated into baking or into a bowl of hot cereal.
A note about iron absorption
Iron is an interesting nutrient because there are several factors which will either increase or decrease its absorption. Vitamin C, found in many fruits and vegetables, is known to increase the absorption of plant-based iron. Pairing iron containing foods with foods that also have vitamin C (like fruits and veggies) is a good strategy to help boost absorption.
If you’ve got a cow’s milk loving youngster, it may be wise to cap their milk intake to no more than 16 to 24 ounces per day (500 to 720 ml). The calcium in milk can interfere with iron absorption, plus milk can fill little tummies up so they don’t have room for other nutritious (i.e. iron-rich) foods. Same goes for if your child is taking a multivitamin – some of the minerals in the vitamin can inhibit iron absorption, so it’s best to have them take the multivitamin away from any potentially iron-rich meals.