We all want our kids to grow up to be strong and resilient. But too often, something like an iron deficiency can hold them back. Iron deficiency is very common in children and can affect their health and well-being. Initially, it can just cause general tiredness and struggling to keep on task. But left untreated, iron-deficient anaemia can affect a child’s development and IQ, including a delay in key milestones such as walking and talking.
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Iron deficiency can also lead to poor growth and behavioural problems. A child’s immune function can also be affected, leaving them more at risk of infection and take longer to recover. The great news is that it’s simple to test, and if your little one is iron-deficient, this is usually super-easy to reverse. Learn more about mighty iron and why it is such important brain and immunity fuel for your children.
Iron is a crucial mineral in the human body that helps make haemoglobin, the part in red blood cells that pumps oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, the body is unable to make haemoglobin, resulting in a reduction of red blood cells leading, in some cases, to the child becoming anaemic.
Iron is also essential for your little one’s growth, development and ability to learn. Low iron stores have been linked to mood disorders, autism spectrum conditions and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is important to support iron levels when they are younger as infant iron deficiency has been associated with teenage anxiety and social problems. This is why it is important to sort out their nutrition when they are young, so that greater issues do not develop when they are older.
Signs & physical symptoms
There are many signs and symptoms of iron deficiency and these often can include – very pale skin, tiredness, general weakness, headaches, a very poor appetite, shortness of breath, dizziness, tongue swelling, tingling in the legs, and slow growth rate. The less common signs can include hair loss, feeling itchy, a change in taste, difficulty swallowing and spoon-shaped nails. There is also a condition called PICA which is associated with iron and zinc deficiencies and this manifests as a desire to eat strange non-food items such as ice, dirt, stones, paper or tissues – and kids often chew on their clothes when they are low in iron.
By far and away the biggest cause of iron deficiency in children is consuming a diet too low in iron and this is very common amongst picky eaters. If your child does not eat (or eats very little) liver, red meat (beef, lamb, venison), lentils, chickpeas, green leafy vegetables, apricots, molasses or eggs then they will be more prone to having low iron stores or to becoming anaemic. Chicken breast contains very little iron for instance, whereas chicken thighs contain a bit more.
Children who don’t eat much meat, predominantly eat a plant-based diet or are raised on a vegan or vegetarian diet can find it hard to consume enough iron. They would need to eat a whole tin of chickpeas each day to get enough iron. Even though this contains around 11mg iron, which is a touch more than the 7-10mg a child needs to consume each day, it is from the non-heme form of iron which is harder for the body to absorb, so a whole tin probably means the equivalent of around 8/9mg per day.
Other reasons for a depletion in iron can be due to having Coeliac disease, an inflamed gut, chronic diarrhoea, thyroid conditions, or chronic threadworm. Low iron is particularly common in toddlers as they are experiencing rapid growth rates and moving on from relying on the iron added to infant formula. Toddlers who drink more than two cups of milk per day are more susceptible to low iron levels as milk can block iron absorption.
Weetabix contains 4.5mg iron per 2 biscuits, however because this is from a non-heme vegetarian source of iron and you serve it with a large quantity of milk, a child will not get the benefit from that much iron and you have to assume that the bioavailable iron is around a third less.
Teenagers are also more susceptible to anaemia as they again are going through huge physical developments and may make questionable diet choices. Teenage girls with particularly heavy periods can also often suffer more with iron deficiency. Girls who have started their period need a great deal more iron than prepubescent girls – around 14mg per day.
There are also several genetic conditions also exist preventing the body from absorbing iron properly and these will need medical support.
What to do if you suspect your child is iron-deficient?
A routine full blood count test will show if your child has a low or low normal haemoglobin level. If this is the case then a further test to count their ferritin levels (iron stores) will determine if this is the result of an iron deficiency. Ferritin is an indicator of the amount of iron stored in the body and a count of 12 or less is anaemia and over 70 is ideal. It is very common for ferritin levels to hover around the mid teens and twenties in children with fatigue, poor immunity, anxiety and learning difficulties.
The easiest way to prevent iron deficiencies or restore iron levels is to include high iron foods like:
- Red meat from grass-fed beef, lamb or venison
- Chicken liver
Other sources of plant-formed iron are:
- Beans (kidney beans, black beans)
- Brown rice
- Goji berries
- Leafy greens including spinach and kale
- Sesame seeds (tahini)
- Sweet potato
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Floravital – a liquid iron & vitamin formula containing herbal extracts and fruit juice concentrates.
- Spatone – a 100% natural daily iron rich water supplement in an easy to absorb form.
- Baobab Powder – a good source of vitamin C, potassium, carbohydrates, and phosphorus.
- Dried Mulberries – contain high levels of protein and iron and are also a rich source of vitamin C, fibre, calcium, and antioxidants.
- Goji Berries – a good source of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, fibre, iron, vitamin A, zinc and antioxidants.
- Biltong – a natural means of raising iron levels in the blood to overcome anaemia.
Another important consideration is to ensure your child is eating enough food high in vitamin C as this will increase the natural absorption of iron by up to 3 times. Such foods include: citrus fruits, potatoes, broccoli, red peppers, kiwi fruit and strawberries.
Here are two of my most popular child-friendly recipes for easy to make yummy healthy drinks high in both natural iron and vitamin C:
In some cases, iron supplements will be needed, especially if ferritin is not rising easily. Always take these under the supervision of your healthcare practitioner and again, also add a vitamin C supplement to increase the absorption rate of the iron. Ideally avoid eating large amounts of dairy products such as milk, cheese or yoghurt at the same time as taking iron supplements (ideally an hour apart from each other). Teens need to also avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time as taking their iron supplements.
So, as you can see: if your child is deficient in iron there’s a huge range of things you can do nutritionally to boost their levels to bring them back to the full of energy healthy little monkey they should be. Why not share any top tips you have in boosting up your child’s iron the comments below?
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- Low Blood Zinc, Iron, and Other Sociodemographic Factors Associated with Behavior Problems in Preschoolers
- Integrated strategies needed to prevent iron deficiency and to promote early child development.
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Impact of iron deficiency anemia on the function of the immune system in children.
- Preventive zinc supplementation for children, and the effect of additional iron: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Infant Iron Deficiency and Iron Supplementation Predict Adolescent Internalizing, Externalizing, and Social Problems
- Association between psychiatric disorders and iron deficiency anemia among children and adolescents: a nationwide population-based study.