As parents, we have so many things to worry about. Maintaining a career, organizing a household, managing the schedules of our kids - the list goes on. But one of the things that we worry about the most is our child’s health. With so many different health concerns with children these days, it is important that we focus on where it all begins, and that is with what we feed our children.
Iron is a crucial part of your child’s diet. Iron deficiency in children is extremely common in the United States and is most common in toddlers, children with limited diets and picky eaters. At some point in your child’s life, they are likely to experience low-iron levels. If this lack of iron continues, it can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, a common nutritional deficiency in children.
Iron plays an important role in muscle function, energy creation, and brain development in children. As a result, a child with iron deficiency may have learning and behavioral problems.
Here are a few things you may not have known about iron-deficiency in children:
Not all iron is absorbed equally
If you have been reading our blog, then you already know there are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron absorbs in our bodies much more readily, is only available in meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish. The richest sources of Heme iron are red meat, dark poultry, organ meats such as liver, oysters, and clams. Non-heme iron is found in plant sources, including dried lentils, beans and peas, whole-grain and enriched pasta and bread, leafy green veggies, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, fortified cereal, and eggs. Because non-heme iron isn’t absorbed as well, vegetarians need to consume almost twice as much iron per day as meat eaters.
So if you are raising your children on a vegan diet, consider the fact that you may need to supplement them with iron, especially if they are picky eaters.
Looking pale and feeling faint are not the only signs of iron deficiency.
There are several symptoms of iron deficiency in children that are obvious. But sometimes the symptoms of iron deficiency can be vague and may go unnoticed. If your child is complaining about dizziness, headache or has a red, inflamed tongue, up and down body temperature, shortness of breath, brittle nails, irritability, or rapid or irregular heartbeat. These symptoms can be mild and your child may not mention them.
Always have regular lab work including blood tests to check your child’s iron levels. You can ask your pediatrician to order specific tests to check your child’s iron levels.
Iron actually boosts your immune system
People often refer to iron-deficiency anemia as having ‘tired blood.’ In children, one of the signs of low levels is that your child gets sick very often, and stay sick for longer. Lack of iron can leave you more vulnerable to infection and cause fatigue. Your child’s body needs to make hemoglobin for their red blood cells, which deliver oxygen from the lungs to every cell in the body. Iron is especially important for brain development in children and lifelong brain function.
During flu and allergy season, you can naturally boost your child’s immunity levels by increasing the amount of iron-rich foods and Vitamin-C.
A healthy diet does not guarantee good iron levels.
As I stated earlier in this article, not all diets are created iron equal. Healthy eating habits could be accidentally be derailing your child’s iron intake! If your child gets a lot of whole grains, snacks or nuts, they could be getting less iron. Natural chemicals called phytates are found in the outer coating of nuts, legumes, seeds, and grains, as well as soy. These phytates interfere with the absorption of iron. Eating Vitamin-C rich foods has the opposite effect, and actually helps your child absorb iron better. You can also add sprouted seeds or roasted nuts (you may have to get creative here and hide these in sandwiches, pasta or smoothies). These foods reduce phytate content so the body gets more iron.
Sprouted-grain bread as well as fermented products, such as tempeh (rather than tofu) or sourdough bread, are all good choices if you’re trying to increase your child’s iron intake. But they make take some getting used to!
Keep in mind that most signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in children don't appear until iron deficiency anemia occurs. If your child has risk factors for iron deficiency, speak up and talk to his or her pediatrician!