Iron rules

Why this mineral is essential for your family's health

When her 10-month-old baby, Courtney, fell from the 15th to the fifth percentile on the growth chart, Kristine Guenther of London, Ont., was worried. A blood test revealed that the baby had low iron. “I’m amazed at how quickly her iron levels dropped,” says Guenther, who says that Courtney’s energy levels seemed normal.

If there’s one nutrient a parent needs to be steely about, it’s iron. Little bodies depend on this vital mineral to make hemoglobin, which transports oxygen through the blood to all cells, muscles and body tissues. Iron plays a role in breathing, fighting infection and proper muscle function. It’s crucial to a child’s ability to concentrate and pay attention.

While babies are born with natural stores of iron, this nutritional money-in-the-bank is usually exhausted by six months. That’s why when solid foods are introduced halfway through a baby’s first year, iron needs to be the premier item on the menu.

That’s not the only time this mineral is essential. A key faltering point, according to Toronto dietitian Daina Kalnins, is when babies go off breastmilk or iron-fortified formula and go overboard with a low-iron beverage, such as whole milk. She says two to three cups of milk daily is sufficient at that age — but some toddlers drink more. Why is that a problem? “Too much of this good thing is not ideal,” says Kalnins, because when toddlers fill up on too much milk, it can drown out their hunger for iron-rich foods.

Enter adolescence and iron-deficiency risk levels go up again. Fast growth rates, erratic eating patterns and concerns about body image can all open the door to anemia. Menstruation increases a girl’s iron needs, but boys have higher iron needs too, as puberty increases their body’s production of red blood cells.

A is for anemia

When your child is not getting sufficient iron, his body struggles to make enough hemoglobin — the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. This can result in:

• lack of energy
• fatigue
• loss of appetite
• slow weight gain or weight loss
• pale skin
• irritability
• trouble concentrating

Kalnins estimates that three to 10 percent of Canadian children are iron deficient, but no one knows for sure.

Perhaps most disconcerting, anemia can impact development and learning. A child with anemia may be unable to concentrate, and even a mild case can interfere with school performance. According to the Anemia Institute for Research and Education in Toronto, “For infants, iron deficiency may cause a delay in mental and psychomotor development that may not be reversible.” Studies have shown that teens with even a moderate iron deficiency may perform poorly at school.

Ironclad food

Prevention starts with eating iron-rich foods. There are two kinds:

Heme, found in meats and poultry, is your best ally, since the body absorbs it better than non-heme. Top heme choices include beef, liver, chicken and seafood.

Non-heme, found in plants, is less well absorbed. Top non-heme choices include enriched cereals, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, whole grains, dried fruit, spinach, Swiss chard, mushrooms, green peas, sweet potatoes and molasses.

Make it absorbing

The body uses non-heme sources better when they’re doubled up with heme. Think chili con carne, pea soup with a little ham, or liverwurst on whole wheat bread. Vitamin C also kicks up absorption a notch. Serve a glass of orange juice with a bowl of iron-enriched cereal, stir-fry beef strips with broccoli or put a little ground meat in your next tomato sauce.

Vegetarian concerns

Contrary to popular opinion, a well-planned, balanced vegetarian diet can deliver adequate iron. But because vegetarians rely on non-heme sources, they require twice the recommended daily intake (RDI). Whether your vegetarian is a toddler or a teen, the trick is to get him munching on enough nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, lentils and vegetables to cover the quota. Kids who are flirting with vegetarianism and subsisting on processed foods, eggs and cheese are not likely to get the iron they need.

Fibre fix

On the flip side, iron may steel up your child’s bowels. To keep things moving — without sacrificing iron intake — keep these tips in mind:

• Start small! Many high-fibre cereals are highly iron enriched. Sprinkle a tablespoon of fibre buds over yogurt, cold or hot cereal or fruit salad.

• Most non-heme iron sources are tops in fibre too: Beans, lentils, and dried fruit such as figs, dates, prunes, raisins and apricots all help keep your child’s plumbing clear. Slip a jar of baby food prunes into your next batch of muffins or quick breads — your kids won’t even notice. Now that’s a trick worthy of an iron chef!

Age mg/day 7–12 months 1 1–3 years 7 4–8 years 10 9–13 years 8 females 14–18 15 males 14–18 11 Where to get it:

Chicken liver
(3 oz/90 g) 7.5 mg Nestle Baby Cereal
Starter Rice (28 g) 7 mg Kellogg’s All-Bran Honey Nut
Flavour (1 cup/250 mL) 7 mg Kraft Cream of Wheat Instant
(1 pouch/28 g) 3.5 mg Baked potato
(with skin) 2.7 mg Beef hamburger
(3 oz/90 g) 2.12 mg Whole wheat bread
(1 slice) 1.2 mg Peanut butter
(2 tbsp/30 mL) 0.9 mg Raisins
(3 tbsp/45 mL) 0.6 mg

Popeye had to eat his spinach from a can, but your tyke can enjoy it fresh and sweet.

2 tbsp (25 mL) raw sunflower seeds
6 cups (1.5 L) baby spinach leaves
2 medium mangoes, peeled and sliced

Tahini Dressing
2 tbsp (25 mL) tahini (sesame seed paste)
2 tbsp (25 mL) water
2 tbsp (25 mL) lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 tsp (10 mL) honey
½ tsp (2 mL) salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat a small frying pan to medium, add sunflower seeds and toast, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes, or until golden brown and fragrant. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together tahini, water and lemon juice until smooth. Add garlic, honey, salt and pepper, whisking to combine.

Toss spinach and mango slices in a large salad bowl, drizzle on dressing and toss to combine. Garnish with sunflower seeds.

Makes 4 servings.

Our recipe tester, Jenny Koniuk, tests Nutrition using both imperial and metric measurements. However, proportions in the metric version may differ slightly from the original, causing small variations in the result.

In a Serving
calories 161
protein 4.2 g
fat 6.7 g
carbohydrates 25.3 g
fibre 4.1 g
iron 17%
vitamin A 83%
vitamin C 72%

*0f recommended daily intake