Iron deficiency can be a real problem for children. Lack of iron can stunt brain development, permanently lower a child's IQ, and also cause anemia, which saps children's strength.
But efforts to improve children's iron intake by fortifying formula and cereals hasn't wiped out iron deficiency; up to 15 percent of babies and toddlers are still iron deficient. Babies between 6 and 12 months old need 11 milligrams of iron a day, and toddlers ages 1 to 3 need 7 mg of iron. To get there, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released new guidelines that recommend iron supplements for all breast-fed babies starting at four months. Breast milk, wonderful as it is, doesn't contain much iron.
The pediatricians also gave a big vote of confidence to food as the best source of iron for children. Starting at six months old, babies should be chowing down on red meat, they said; bring on the sliders! In truth, there are lots of iron-rich food choices, even if baby burgers aren't on the menu. Many children's cereals are fortified with iron, and many other foods contain iron naturally. Here are five iron-boosting foods:
- Red meat. Red meat has the most iron per ounce of any food, and it's in a form, heme iron, that's easily used by the human body. Beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats deliver the most iron. Dark meat from poultry is also good.
- Beans, including lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans are great sources of iron for people who can't or won't eat meat.
- Leafy, green vegetables like spinach and kale are high in iron, and also deliver fiber, calcium, and vitamin C.
- Walnuts are iron-rich, and also pack protein, healthy fat, and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Orange juice. OJ doesn't have iron, but consuming vitamin C at the same time as iron-rich foods increases the rate of iron absorption. Most children's juices, including apple and grape juice, are fortified to deliver 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance for children. Citrus fruit, kiwi, cantaloupe, and strawberries are naturally rich in C.
Infants should get tested for iron deficiency at 12 months. Testing is important because children with iron deficiency don't show outward symptoms unless they progress to serious anemia. Anemia symptoms include fatigue and weakness, pale skin, rapid heartbeat, decreased appetite, and dizziness. The blood tests used to detect iron deficiency will never be your child's favorite medical test, or yours, but it will give you solid information that you can use to make sure your child is getting enough iron.