Ways to improve your child’s iron intake

Daily intake of different vitamins and minerals is essential to keep your kids healthy. However, this often does not happen, and many children end up having nutritional deficiencies. One of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world is that of iron.
Iron plays a significant role in a child’s growth and overall health. It is also an important component of haemoglobin, a protein present in blood that helps transport oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. Lack of iron in the body can result in anaemia, a condition in which our blood is not able to carry oxygen effectively. This can make us feel weak, tired and can result in shortness of breath. In children, iron deficiency anaemia can have long-lasting adverse effects as it can impact their mental and motor development.
Iron deficiency affects more than 25% of people worldwide, and in India, around 89 million children have been found to be anaemic.

Who needs iron the most?

Iron is an essential mineral that every parent must keep in mind while planning meals for their child, but iron deficiency is more commonly found in:

  • Babies who are born prematurely
  • Babies who are fed cow or buffalo’s milk before the age of one
  • Breast-fed babies who are given complementary foods that are not fortified with iron after the age of 6 months
  • Babies and children who are fed diets that do not contain foods that are rich sources of iron
  • Children with underlying medical conditions like chronic infection or gastrointestinal issues
  • Teen girls who have started menstruating and need additional iron

Does your child have an iron deficiency?

If your child is exhibiting any of these signs, it is possible that they have an iron deficiency. Some of the signs you should look out for are:

  • Pale eyes, nails and skin
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Poor appetite
  • Rapid breathing
  • Frequent episodes of infection
  • Relatively slower growth and development
  • Behavioural problems
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Unusual cravings for things such as paint, dirt, ice etc

What can be done to prevent and treat iron deficiency?

The best way to fight iron deficiency is by adding more iron-rich foods in your child’s diet. Here are some ways to increase the iron content of your kid’s diet.

Keep it Meaty: Eggs, red meats and organ meats are packed with iron. Iron can be found in both plant foods and animal foods, although the iron from non-vegetarian food is absorbed better by the body. But fret not, if you are a vegetarian, just increase the quantity of iron-rich foods in your plate. Also cooking plant foods, like spinach, can help the body absorb iron in a better way.

Load up on Vitamin C: Serve foods rich in vitamin C especially along with iron-rich plant foods. Vitamin C helps us to better absorb the iron that we consume. You can find this vitamin in lemons, oranges, sweet lemons, kiwis, guavas, capsicums, tomatoes, cauliflower, papaya, muskmelon and strawberries. So go ahead and add a dash of lime to the palak sabji or serve a glass of (unsweetened) orange juice or a platter of fruit with that omelete at breakfast.

Go Green: Green leafy vegetables are considered to be one of the best sources of iron. Adding green leafy vegetables like cabbage, spinach, fenugreek leaves (methi) or lettuce in your children’s everyday diet will ensure that they have a proper supply of the nutrient. Think local as well and incorporate greens like shepu, drumstick leaves and mustard leaves. As mentioned before, cook these for better iron availability. Apart from iron, green leafy vegetables also are an excellent source of potassium and fiber.

Beans all the way: Soya beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils are all loaded with iron. Prepare your regular gravy with these beans or make chickpea hummus and serve it for breakfast with bread or vegetable sticks. Toddlers love it!

Be Nutty and Sweet: Add a good dose of nuts and seeds to your child’s daily diet. Nuts like cashews and pistachios, dry fruits like prunes, dates and raisins and seeds like pumpkin, sesame and garden cress seeds – all can give your child a good boost of iron. You can add these to fruit salads, or give it as chikki or just blend them all together in the form of iron-packed laddoos. These are great to carry along as a quick snack for those sudden hunger pangs. Jaggery and dark chocolate can also add iron and sweeten up your kids’ diet.

Despite our best efforts, we may not always be able to understand or fulfil the necessary iron requirements for our children. The body cannot naturally produce iron; therefore, it is important to make sure that kids get these vital building blocks from the food they eat. Blending the foods mentioned above in your kids’ diet will help them gain the necessary iron to stay healthy and strong. Although iron is an essential nutrient for your children, you must also ensure that you feed them a balanced diet at all times.

Written by:
Samina Vora,
Paediatric Oncology Nutritionist,
Cuddles Foundation, KEM Hospital.

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