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Is your child getting enough iron?

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Emma Shafqat
Paediatric dietitian

Iron is a critical nutrient for adults and children, but it’s also the most common nutritional deficiency. It can be difficult to tell if your child is getting enough iron, but there are some signs of deficiency. Is your child complaining about being tired? Do they look pale or feel short of breath? If so, it’s likely they’re low on iron. But there’s plenty you can do to up your child’s iron intake, whether they seem obviously deficient or not.

There are guidelines on how much iron your child should be getting into their diet:

  • 1-3 years old = 6.9mg of iron per day
  • 4-6 years old = 6.1mg of iron per day
  • 7-10 years old = 8.7mg of iron per day
  • Boys 11-18 years old = 11.3mg of iron per day
  • Girls 11-18 years old = 14.8mg of iron per day

But what does 6.8mg even look like?! Well, as an example, a portion of a fortified breakfast cereal like Ready Brek or Weetabix would contain 3.6mg and 4.8mg of iron respectively. Beans on toast would contain around 3.7mg. In other words, you can certainly achieve the guidelines without serving your toddler a whole ribeye!

Here are some more iron-rich options to consider:

  1. Breakfast: fortified breakfast cereals, wheatgerm toast, and beans on toast. For older children, you could also include a fruit juice.
  2. Lunch: falafel, humous, bean salad, lentils, tofu, jacket potato and baked beans, and peanut butter on toast. You could also include a piece of fruit and veggie sticks like carrots.
  3. Dinner: red meat, chicken thighs, oily fish, beans, and green vegetables like spinach.
  4. Snacks: nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and hard boiled eggs.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as just eating lots of iron rich food. It’s also important to bear in mind how well the iron you’re eating is being absorbed. Namely, there are two different types of iron: haem iron and non-haem iron. Non-haem iron is mainly found in plant-based foods and is harder for your body to absorb than haem iron, which is found in things like meat and fish. To improve your non-haem iron absorption, eat foods containing vitamin C and vitamin A alongside your iron.

There are also several more things that can stop iron being absorbed as efficiently:

  • Phytates, which are found in plant-based foods.
  • Tannins, which can be found in tea and coffee.
  • Calcium, as this competes with the iron in the gut. You can simply try to have calcium rich foods separately from iron rich foods.

It might sound a bit overwhelming, but I promise you it’s simpler that it looks. If you can, simply try and include a source of vitamin C in the form of fruit or vegetables alongside iron rich foods as well as starchy root vegetables, tubers (such as potatoes) or fruit in your meals as these are lower in phytates but still high in fibre. The main thing is, as always, aiming for balance.