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Iron-rich foods for kids and infants

Iron-rich foods for kids and infants

Between 9 and 15 months of age most children are screened for iron-deficiency with a toe or finger prick test.

Why are they torturing your little one? Well, I promise it’s for a good reason.

What is iron deficiency?

Iron is an essential mineral necessary for carrying oxygen in the blood.  Deficiency of iron can lead to anemia, a condition where the amount of blood cells is decreased.  Children and adults with anemia can feel fatigued or have a harder time playing or exercising. Anemia can cause significant developmental delays because less oxygen is getting to the growing brain.  It can lead to ADHD, learning disabilities or other behavioral problems – simply because the brain isn’t happy without its precious oxygen.

Infants are especially prone to iron deficiency after 6 months of age.  In the last few weeks of pregnancy a significant amount of iron is stored in the growing infant, enough to last 6 months after birth.  After this time children typically need more iron than is provided by formula or breastmilk.  Fortunately, this is precisely the time when solid foods are introduced.  Combining iron-rich foods with other tasty foods will make them more palatable.

Dr. K’s favorite iron-rich foods

Beans – Lentils, black beans, kidney or lima beans are all high in iron.  Cook until very mushy if giving to an infant.

Quinoa this ancient supergrain is a complete protein (containing balanced amino acids), and has nearly as much iron as fortified cereal! Cook well with extra water to form a cereal before giving to an infant. Older children may enjoy cooked quinoa with almond milk, cinnamon and a touch of real maple syrup.

Blackstrap molasses  only 1 tablespoon of blackstrap molasses has as much iron as fortified cereals.  Make sure to get organic molasses (no pesticides), and mix a teaspoon or two in with sweet potatoes, quinoa, or “greensauce” (below).

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“Greensauce” – mix apple or pearsauce with pureed green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, spinach and turnip greens.  Yum!

Sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds – are high in many minerals, including iron, calcium and zinc.  Tahini and pumpkin seed butter are delicious spread on crackers, toast or cut vegetables.

Meats – are completely appropriate early foods for 6 months+ infants (who are in meat-eating families).  Ground turkey or lamb can be mixed with potatoes, yams, squash, or another pureed food for infants.

Iron-fortified cereals like rice cereal (Cream of Rice), fortified breads and pastas are options for children older than 9 months.  Some children younger than 9 months do not have enough enzymes to break down starches in these foods, so waiting until 9 months is advisable.  Also, iron-fortified foods are more likely to cause constipation unlike foods naturally high in iron.  Remember – sometimes nature knows best!

Adding food sources of vitamin C like lemon, kiwi or bell pepper can increase absorption of iron.  Sometimes a squeeze of lemon over the food can be just enough to make a big difference.

Remember, supplemental iron should only be given if a child has a documented case of anemia or iron deficiency. Iron is a pro-oxidant (as opposed to an anti-oxidant), which can cause oxidative stress.  Accidental ingestion of iron-containing supplements is still the number one cause of poisoning in children – so keep the iron supplements locked up and away from reach of children.  Iron also tends to worsen any kind of gut dysbiosis, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or yeast overgrowth in the gut.  Remember that iron is a critical nutrient for gut bacteria and yeast – so iron containing products may make bad gut bacteria/yeast overgrowth much worse.   This does not tend to happen with iron containing foods! (Yet another way that nature knows best!)

RDA for iron:

7-12 months: 11 mg/day.

1-3 years: 7 mg

4-8 years: 10 mg

9-13 years: 8 mg

14-18 years: 11 mg for males, 15 mg for menstruating females.

Sources:

USDA National Nutrient database for Standard Reference: www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

Insel P, Turner RE, Ross D. Nutrition. 2nd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett; 2004.

Office of Dietary Supplements: National Institutes of Health.”Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron” http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron/. 27 July 2011.

Riod E, et al. “Relationship of maternal and infant iron stores as assessed by determination of plasma ferritin.” Pediatrics. 1975 May; 55 (5:) 694-9

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Erika Krumbeck

Erika Krumbeck, ND is founder of NaturopathicPediatrics.com and the owner of Montana Whole Health, a naturopathic clinic in Missoula, Montana. She received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University and is a licensed physician in the state of Montana. Dr. Krumbeck is one of few physicians specializing in the treatment of chronic health conditions in children. 

Dr. Krumbeck likes to practice her own healthy lifestyle with her wonderful husband Jason, a physical therapist, and their children Annika and Leopold. 

She is a professional member of the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

Comments:

  • Avatar
    erica
    December 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    My 10 month old was a 32 week preemie and is showing a level of 7. His doctor prescibed 22mg twice a day. That seems a little high to me, especially after reading your chart. I really don’t want to give it to him, but he’s been not doing well, and hoping it’s related just to the anemia.

  • Avatar
    Robin
    January 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    For the “greensauce”, are the leafy greens cooked first?

  • Avatar
    Kathleen
    January 24, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I’ve really been enjoying your blog, Erika. As a person who will likely be having a baby in April, I’m finding this advice really thoughtful and convincing. Also, in case you are answering questions from blog comments, I will ask mine: pregnancy heartburn, any suggestions?

  • Avatar
    Maureen Dunn
    January 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Great post, thanks for writing something concise on this topic! Already passed it on to folks I know will be interested.

  • Avatar
    Jon
    January 24, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Are there any kinds or brands of blackstrap molasses that you would recommend? Casey has a little bit of iron deficiency and she is starting to supplement with blackstrap.

  • Avatar
    jason
    January 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    So why are supplements so bad then? Why is it better to get through the diet?

      • Avatar
        Alex
        March 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm

        Dr,
        Our now 15 months old son was diagnosed with slight anemia at one year check up. He is still being breastfed. Ferrous sulfate was prescribed initially by our pediatrician, but we decided to up his iron via iron rich foods instead. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to raise his iron enough in 3 months. We started him on ferrous sulfate 4 days ago and severe constipation followed. You mention above iron picolinate as an alternative. Can you please suggest other forms of iron for a toddler as well as brands names under which they come? I am calling our pediatrician about this and wanted to be armed with specific recommendations in case she tells me to stay the course with ferrous sulfate. Thanks.

          • Avatar
            Callie
            March 22, 2019 at 2:40 pm

            My 16 month old daughter was prescribed ferrous sulfate drops by her pediatrician after lab tests showed her iron levels were low. I chose to attempt to raise them with diet and the levels did go up, although not as high as her pediatrician would have liked. I am very opposed to giving her the ferrous sulfate and wonder if you have an opinion on NovaFerrum Liquid Iron Pediatric Drops.

  • Avatar
    Ali Carlson Kelly
    January 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Great information, I can’t wait to pass it on!
    Ali

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