Is your child getting enough iron? Here’s how to know and what to do!
Do you ever wonder if your kids are getting all the key nutrients they need for proper growth and development–especially during picky eating phases? Although there are several essential nutrients that we need to pay attention to as parents, there’s one, in particular, that seems to be popping up as a concern in my nutrition counselling practice—iron.
Why is iron so important for my child?
Iron is essential for general health, growth and development in babies and kids. It carries oxygen to the body’s tissues, keeps cells healthy and functioning optimally, and helps the brain and nerves develop properly. If iron levels dip low enough, it can lead to iron-deficient anemia, a condition in which the blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells (these are the cells that carry oxygen throughout the body).
Without enough iron, the body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, the substance found in red blood cells that carries the oxygen. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include paleness, feeling cold, shortness of breath, lack of energy/focus/concentration, and irritability.
What about babies?
Iron is especially important for babies, starting around six months when they start solids. Although babies have a reserve built up from being in the womb, at about six months it starts to deplete, so a daily dose (or two) of iron-rich solid food is needed to keep your baby physically and developmentally healthy.
Common reasons for iron deficiency in babies and kids:
Iron deficiency can happen for many reasons but some common diet-related reasons include: not including enough iron when introducing solids foods, following a vegetarian or vegan diet, under-consuming meat, poultry and fish, over-consumption of dairy products (and not enough iron-rich foods), prolonged or severe picky eating, or being a teenage athlete (especially in females).
If you suspect that your child isn’t meeting his or her iron requirements, here are 5 important steps to take:
1. Serve a variety of iron-rich foods each day:
There are two types of iron in the foods we eat. Animal sources (called heme-iron) are found in meat, poultry, and fish. This type of iron is easy for our bodies to absorb. Plant sources of iron include beans, peas, lentils, tofu, some vegetables, and enriched pasta or cereals. This type is non-heme iron, and our bodies are not as good at absorbing it (this is why vegetarians need almost twice the daily recommended amount of iron compared with non-vegetarians).
To help increase absorption of non-heme iron foods, you can do a couple things:
- Combine plant sources of iron with animal sources. For example, having kidney beans with ground meat helps our bodies to get the iron from the beans.
- Include foods that are rich in vitamin C – this will make it easier for our bodies to absorb plant sources of iron (e.g. citrus fruits, mango, berries, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers).
Try these iron-rich meal/snack ideas (high iron foods are bolded):
- Almond butter on whole grain toast with sliced mangoes
- Extra-firm tofu stir fried with broccoli and peppers
- Spinach salad with sliced oranges and shredded chicken
- Minestrone soup made with beef, tomatoes, vegetables, and kidney beans
- Homemade trail mix made with dry cereal, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and dried fruit
- Mixed bean salad with peppers and tomatoes
- Mixed greens salad with chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries
- Cream of wheat with blueberries and slivered almonds
- Salmon with edamame and enriched pasta
- Eggs scrambled with spinach and tomatoes
- Chili made with ground beef, tomatoes and kidney beans
- Lentil soup made with tomatoes and enriched crackers on the side
- Enriched pasta salad with chickpeas and diced tomatoes
Babies between six and 12 months should be offered iron-rich foods at least twice a day (one to two small servings). Soft and tender pieces of meat or finely minced, ground or mashed cooked meat, de-boned fish, poultry, well-cooked whole egg, beans, lentils and iron-fortified infant cereals are great iron-rich options for baby.
2. Buy a cast-iron skillet:
Give your pancakes or stir-fries a boost! Using a cast-iron skillet while cooking can increase the amount of iron in food, because the iron from the pan is absorbed by the food! Cooking food, especially acidic foods like tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet can boost iron content significantly. Cast-iron skillets also conduct heat really well, transfer easily from stovetop to oven with and last for decades. Another benefit to using cast-iron pans as an alternative to non-stick pans is that you avoid the chemicals, which can be leached into your food when you use non-stick skillets on high heat.
3. Watch your child’s milk intake:
Milk, yogurt and cheese contain many essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and protein. Although they are nutrient-dense (and an important part of your child’s diet), it’s not uncommon for young kids to get too much. Consuming too much dairy (specifically milk), can potentially contribute to iron deficiency because it’s really easy to fill tummies up with milk, yogurt or cheese and not leave enough space for other foods. For that reason, serve milk to drink alongside meals (500 mL max. per day) instead of in between (serve water in between meals).
If your child is getting more than 750 ml (3 cups) of milk per day (plus other dairy like yogurt and cheese), they could be displacing other iron-rich foods from the diet.
4. Seek help and support for picky eating:
Keep in mind the Division of Responsibility – you, the parent, are responsible for the what, where and when of feeding and your child is responsible for if and how much he eats. If you are offering your child a variety of iron-rich foods each day (pressure-free) and she is choosing to consume very little or none of these foods, iron deficiency may be a concern, especially if this behaviour is persistent. Consider consulting a registered dietitian for proper guidance.
5. Get your child screened:
If your child is consuming a diet rich in iron-containing foods and you’re still concerned about low iron, consult your health care provider to have your child screened. He or she may benefit from an iron supplement but never give a supplement without first consulting your health care provider – too much iron can be harmful!
This post was written by Kathryn Taxbock, RD, Counselling Dietitian at The Centre For Family Nutrition
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