If your child has been feeling tired, depressed, and restless, he/she might be suffering from iron deficiency. Commonly ignored, iron deficiency in kids can lead to anemia and can adversely impact their cognitive and behavioral growth. Parents often underestimate the importance of Iron as a key nutrient in a child’s growth and development. While carbs, protein, and vitamins get a lion’s share of parents’ attention, iron gets pushed to a corner somewhere down the line.
From pregnancy to breastfeeding and adolescence, iron is fundamental to a child’s overall development. It is an essential nutrient required for making hemoglobin, which is a key component of red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. In the case of iron deficiency, which is also called ‘anemia’, the production of red blood cells slows down and our tissues and organs are not able to get enough oxygen. As a result, the hemoglobin level in the blood dips, which adversely affects the age-appropriate development and growth of a child. If a child is deficient in iron, s/he may experience loss in appetite, poor weight gain, and cognitive & behavioral delays. Adults suffering from iron deficiency may experience lethargy, irritability, hair loss, brittle nails, and pale appearance (due to lower hemoglobin). The iron deficiency in kids can easily be addressed with a balanced diet. Usually, there are two types of Iron found in food — heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, fish, and poultry, while Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, greens, and nuts. Non-heme iron is an important part of dietary nutrition and can be better absorbed by the body if planned and taken properly.
Age-appropriate Iron requirements
Babies are usually born with a good amount of iron stores. Breastfeeding, for the first six months, ensures uninterrupted and adequate iron supply from breast milk. Once babies reach 6 months, which is a time of rapid growth and to introduce solids, iron sufficiency starts becoming a challenge. When it comes to first foods for babies, it is advisable to start with iron-fortified foods, which help prevent anemia in babies. To enhance iron absorption, make sure to include Vitamin-C rich foods such as oranges, tomatoes, etc in your child’s daily diet.
Iron requirements during childhood need to cover the basal loss of iron, the amount required for growth and for the increase in hemoglobin concentration. The growth requirements need to be understood in reference to the requirements for the expansion of blood volume, lean muscle mass and for building body iron stores in growing kids. Iron is one of the essential nutrients, which is required in larger amounts by girls in the 10-12 years as girls achieve menarche (first menstrual bleeding). Also, menstrual blood loss increases the demand for iron. Young athletes who regularly engage in rigorous and intense exercise tend to lose more iron and thus, may need extra iron in their diets. If these demands are not addressed on time then it can lead to iron deficiency known as anemia.
RDA of Iron for Children and Adolescents
Group Age (years) Iron (mg/day)
Children 1-3 9
Boys 10-12 21
Girls 10-12 27
Boys 13-15 32
Girls 13-15 27
Boys 16-17 28
Girls 16-17 26
Foods rich in Iron
Garden cress seeds
5 ways to improve Iron Absorption
- Add more Vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits, lemon, amla, tomatoes, berries, kiwi fruit, melons, green leafy veggies and capsicum to your kid’s daily diet as Vitamin C helps in better absorption of iron in the body.
Quick Tip: In a bowl of dal, add a teaspoon of lemon juice. You can also serve amla chutney with stuffed chapati or paratha.
- Avoid serving coffee, tea, and red wine (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) to children as these can reduce iron absorption. Coffee has caffeine, tea has tannins and red wine has poly-phenols — these compounds have an inhibitory effect on iron absorption.
Quick Tip: Avoid having tea and coffee at mealtime or have them at least 30 minutes later or prior to mealtime. Same with red wine, avoid having it with snacks, or have it 30 minutes after having snacks. It’s better to avoid tea, coffee and wine very close to a main meal
- Avoid excess intake of zinc, copper, magnesium, and calcium because they are positively charged. This means that they have the same binding site as iron and thus, prevent iron from binding and absorbing.
Quick Tip: Be careful with giving multivitamins to your kids indiscriminately. Consult your doctor or nutritionist first.
- Avoid combining non-heme iron foods with snacks rich in Calcium and Phosphorus because these two also inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.
Quick Tip: Don’t overdo milk in your kid’s diet because milk is a poor source of iron. An excess amount of milk can put a child at risk of iron deficiency.
- Oxalates impair the absorption of non-heme iron. Oxalates are compounds derived from oxalic acid and found in foods such as spinach, kale, beets, nuts, chocolate, tea, and herbs such as oregano, basil, and parsley.
Quick Tip: Boil these vegetables before consumption as it reduces their oxalate content from 30% to almost 90%, depending on the vegetable. Ensure good gut health as good bacteria in our colon can break down oxalates before they bind with minerals.