The right amount of iron for children
The body needs oxygen to thrive and iron is the mineral responsible for distributing it throughout our system. The oxygen-transporting protein is called haemoglobin and it is found in red blood cells. They bring the oxygen to all cells.
Myoglobin is another oxygen-transporting protein that holds oxygen in the muscle so that it is ready whenever we need it. Iron also helps enzymes in the use of oxygen by all cells of the body.
What happens to iron in our body? it is conserved and recycled. If red cells are damaged or old, the spleen removes the iron component and keeps in storage some iron. The rest goes to the liver for processing. It is transported as transferrin to bone marrow and recycled for use in new red blood cells.
How do we lose iron? Iron could be lost in urine and sweat, during bleeding from injuries or menstrual periods. All this lost iron needs to be replaced through food. Girls will have higher iron needs than boys when they start their menstruation.
Today, most children who are malnourished in the world suffer from iron anemia. These children are not eating sufficient iron rich foods to replace their daily needs. If a child is iron deficient, the cognitive ability is impaired and therefore their education. These children are less concentrated during class, have a colder body temperature, have delays in their physical and mental development. In addition, their immune system is weak and they tend to catch more viruses and bacteria, and their injuries do not heal properly.
How much iron do children need and what foods are good sources of iron?
Heme sources are best absorbed by the body and come from animal products such as meat, fish, poultry and egg yolks. Non-heme sources come from plants such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains and enriched grains. When the above foods are eating with vitamins C rich food sources, the iron absorption is more effective. For example, orange juice, parsley, red peppers, lemonade.
Age group Recommended iron Food portions
7-12 months* 11mg 1/4-1/2 cup of milk 4-5 times per day**
1/4-1oz of meat once a day***
2-3 tablespoons cooked vegetables
1/4-1 slice of bread per day
1-3 years 7mg 1/4-3/4 cup of milk 4-5 times per day
1-2oz of meat twice a day
1-2 tablespoon cooked vegetables per day
1/2 slice of bread 1-3 times per day
4-8 years 10mg 1 cup of milk 3 times per day
2-3oz of meat 3 times per day 1/2 cup cooked vegetables per day 1 slice of bread 4 times per day
9-13 years 8mg 1 cup of milk 3 times per day
2-3oz of meat 3 times per day
1/2 cup cooked vegetables per day 1 slice of bread 6 times per day
14-18 years, girls 15mg Same as above (9-13 years)
14-18 years, boys 11mg Same as above (9-13 years)
*Infants who continue to be fed only with breast milk after 6 months they are at risk of negative iron balance and may deplete reserves by 6-9 months.
After 3-4 months, the addition of iron fortified cereals or an iron supplement become important. If the infant is to be formula-fed, it is recommended to choose a formula with iron.
**1/2 cup of milk could be substituted for 1/2-3/4 oz cheese, 1/4-1/2 cup yogurt, or 21/2 tbsp non fat dry milk powder
***1 oz of meat, fish or poultry could be substituted with 4-5 tbsp cooked legumes, 1 egg, 2 tbsp peanut butter
****Choose one green leafy vegetable such as spinach, broccoli, or orange vegetable such as carrots, winter squash
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and needs to be prepared in advance to make it balanced. Parental/guardian food shopping and at home preparation is key to ensure children have a good breakfast before going to school. Early bed time will help children to have enough sleep hours and will be happy to be awaken an hour before going to school. Allow plenty of time for a peaceful and hearty breakfast at home. If this is not possible and school provides breakfast, ensure children have a protein and iron rich snack to supplement lunch.
If a child receives a monetary allowance to buy a snack for lunch at school. Teach them to buy protein rich snacks and not just sweets, sodas or salty snacks. Many children lose become anaemic by age 7-8 if protein and iron rich food sources intake is poor.