I see a range of children of different ages with iron deficiency. For many, the symptoms of iron deficiency in kids are really obvious. Particularly teenagers can experience significant fatigue and even fainting. For others, it can be a bit more subtle. Parents tend to notice their child is generally tired and seem to drag themselves around with low energy levels.
Iron is an important mineral found in blood and it carries oxygen around the body. A low ferritin level indicates iron deficiency however, iron deficiency anaemia is when the blood cannot carry enough oxygen because iron levels are too low and haemoglobin levels become affected.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency in kids?
Children with iron deficiency or iron deficiency anaemia may be experiencing a tough time. They may struggle in their day. Concentration and focus can be difficult. The day’s challenges can be extra hard and frustrating, presenting as what we might interpret as ‘bad’ behaviour. However, the child is simply exhausted and is usually not trying to be uncooperative or difficult.
How can I test for iron deficiency in kids?
If you suspect your child has iron deficiency, it may be a good reason to check through a blood test. Talk to your medical practitioner.
If iron status is very low, it is often necessary to replenish iron (ferritin) stores with iron supplementation. It is also important to assess possible reasons for the deficiency. It may be that dietary intake of iron is not sufficient, or perhaps there is a nutrient interaction that is reducing absorption. It may be that the child is going through a growth period requiring more iron or possibly illness resulting in iron losses.
In the mean time, it is worth taking a look at your child’s intake of iron rich foods.
How much iron do children need?
Here are Nutrient Reference Values for Iron:
0.2 mg for babies (0 to 6 months) Adequate Intake (AI)
7 mg for babies (7 to 12 months) Estimated Average Requirement (EAR)
9 mg for toddlers (1 to 3 years) Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)
10 mg for schoolchildren (4 to 8 years) RDI
8 mg for girls and boys (9 to 13 years) RDI
15 mg for teenage girls (14 to 18 years) RDI
11 mg for teenage boys (14 to 18 years) RDI
Vegetarian diets need 1.8 times more iron than diets that contain meat. This is to account for the decreased bioavailability of vegetable (non-haem) sources of iron. The amount of iron that can be absorbed from non-haem iron is significantly less than meat (haem) sources of iron.
What foods do I offer my child to get enough iron?
It depends on your diet and whether you don’t include particular foods for any reason.
My suggestion is to offer a VARIETY of non-haem and haem iron rich foods every day.
And couple these with a good source of vitamin C such as some vegetables and fruit (e.g. broccoli, tomato, berries and oranges) or citric acid to promote absorption.
When offering milk, do so at a separate time to iron-rich meals as it can decrease absorption of iron by 50%! In some cultures, it is normal for children to drink tea on a regular basis. Tea can decrease iron absorption by 75%!
Here are some examples of non-haem iron food sources
|Tempeh, cooked, (100g)||9.0|
|Amaranth (a small and nutritious South American grain), cooked, (1 cup)||5.2|
|Lentils, dried peas or beans, cooked, (1 cup)||3.6|
|Tofu, firm, ½ cup (100g)||2.8|
|Cashews, 25 nuts (50g)||2.6|
|Quinoa, cooked, (1 cup)||2.0|
|Dried apricots, 10 halves (50g)||1.6|
|Rolled oats, cooked, (1 cup)||1.5|
|Kidney beans, ½ cup, (140g)||1.4|
|Almonds, 20-25 nuts, dry roasted (30g)||1.1|
|Wheatgerm, 1 Tbsp (10g)||1.0|
|Whole egg, boiled (45g)||0.8|
|Broccoli, cooked, 1/2 cup (100g)||0.7|
|Sunflower seeds, 1 tablespoon (15g)||0.7|
|Prunes, 7 pieces (50g)||0.6|
Here are some examples of haem iron food sources:
|Lean lamb, grilled 125g||6.8|
|Pâté, chicken liver 60g||5.3|
|Lean beef mince, cooked 125g||4.3|
|Lean beef sirloin, grilled 125g||3.9|
|Pork leg steak, grilled 125g||1.5|
|Salmon, canned, drained 125g||1.5|
|Chicken breast, skinless, roasted 125g||0.9|
|Bream, grilled 125g||0.6|
*AUSNUT – Australian Food and Nutrient Database, FSANZ 2011-13, USDA
Food Database, 2009 and Nutrition Informational Panels on Food Products.
Need more help?
As a dietitian I can take a look at your child’s dietary intake to see if any nutrients (not just iron!) are at risk of nutritional deficiency due to poor intake or fussy eating.
I can then work with you and your child to look at what foods can help to improve their nutritional intake, as well as practical ways to introduce new foods.