Why Children Need Iron
Iron is essential for the overall health of everyone – for energy, immune health, and growth. For children, it is a vital mineral for well-being, especially during growth spurts. Iron is responsible for the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells which carries oxygen from the lungs to all systems of the body. Oxygen is used on a cellular level for energy production. When the body’s iron stores diminish, organs are unable to function properly. Eventually, an iron deficiency in children results in fatigue, poor concentration, and difficulty learning. Additionally, a deficiency can inhibit growth. This is why it is so important to understand the iron requirements for children, and to meet them.
How Much is Enough?
Iron requirements vary with age and gender, but the general rule is one milligram per day. As children are only able to absorb about ten percent of what they eat, a typical child from ages four to fourteen requires about ten milligrams every day from food.
Up until six months of age, babies only need about six milligrams of iron, which is found in breast milk or fortified formula. Babies are born with 500 milligrams of iron. These stores begin to deplete between four and six months. Once they reach six months of age, their needs increase to eleven milligrams. This is an ideal time to introduce iron fortified cereals in addition to breast milk of formula. It is important to note that the iron in breast milk is absorbed three times more than from other sources. Toddlers only need around seven milligrams each day.
Once children reach fourteen or fifteen years of age, their iron needs increase. This is partially due to growth, but also increased physical activity, and for girls the blood loss during menstruation. Boys need around eleven milligrams of iron, while teenage girls should consume fifteen.
Ensuring Your Child is Getting Enough Iron
What are the best iron rich foods for children? Red meat, chicken, salmon, tuna and eggs are all wonderful sources of iron. Animal foods do not necessarily have more iron than vegetable sources, but their mineral content is much easier to absorb. Three ounces of beef has anywhere from two to three milligrams. One egg has .7 milligrams.
Good vegetable sources include tofu, enriched grains, fortified cereals, dried beans, dried fruit, nuts, and dark green vegetables. One half cup of tofu, for example, supplies almost seven milligrams of iron, one cup of oatmeal, 8.3; five prunes, 1.1 milligrams.
There are ways to increase iron absorption in children. Consuming foods with vitamin C along with iron will help – try a glass of orange juice with oatmeal, or tomatoes sauteed with tofu and spinach. Vitamin C can increase iron uptake by as much as thirty percent. Eating a little meat with iron rich vegetable sources will increase the lesser compatibility of vegetarian foods. Too much milk can in fact block iron absorption; serve milk after a meal, not during. Also, make sure to minimize your older child’s coffee or tea consumption as the tannins inhibit iron absorption.
Iron Deficiency in Children
Iron deficiency is most often caused by an inadequate supply of iron rich foods. The body stores this mineral in the tissue, but as iron consumption waivers, and demand rises with growth spurts and increased activity levels, the body begins to lose its reserves. Iron deficiency in children doesn’t happen all of a sudden, but over a period of time. Eventually it leads to iron deficiency anemia, which usually has to be treated with iron supplements.
Children around one year of age are at risk for a deficiency. This is because their diet may shift form breast milk or formula to cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron and it limits absorption. Also, too much milk irritates the stomach, which can cause small amounts of bleeding through the stool, gradually depleting iron reserves.
The early signs of iron deficiency can be difficult to detect as they are common symptoms of a number of ailments. They include fatigue and weakness, pale skin, decreased appetite, difficulty focusing, and irritability. Iron deficiency in children can lead to stunted growth, difficulty learning, and behavioral problems. If you believe your child has an iron deficiency, consult their pediatrician. Doctors can do a simple blood test to check iron levels in the blood, and then prescribe iron supplements if necessary. Too much iron can be harmful however, so only use supplements under medical supervision. A build-up of excess iron encourages free radical production. High iron levels over several years are linked to heart disease and cancer in adulthood.
Iron deficiency is not as common in children as it was decades ago thanks to the introduction of iron-fortified cereals. Still, not many children get enough on a daily basis. A healthy, well-balanced diet, rich in whole, natural foods and quality proteins will ensure that the iron requirements for children are met, supplying your child what they need for optimal energy, learning, growth, and happiness.
Balch, Phyllis, CNC. Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Fourth Edition. (Penguin Books, 2006).