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Iron matters – it’s not just about fruit and veg

Providing enough essential nutrients in the diet is vital to help children grow and develop normally and be healthy now as well as in the future.

Encouraging children to eat fruit and vegetables is of course really important, but did you know iron-deficiency anaemia is one of the most common nutrition-related deficiencies ocurring in children?

Dietary surveys have found around one in ten 1.5 to 3-year-olds year have low iron intakes, making them more likely to be at risk.1

Why is iron important?

Iron is needed to produce healthy red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen around the body in the blood. In infants and young children, iron-deficiency anaemia may lead to poor growth and delayed development.

Common symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Lack of energy.
  • Pale skin.
  • Poor appetite.
  • Breathlessness.

Who’s most at risk?

Children who are weaned later (beyond six months) may be at risk. This is because breastmilk is a poor source of iron, and at six months of age infants' iron stores accumulated during gestation are diminished, and so iron-rich foods need to be provided in complementary feeding and beyond.

Young children who 'fill up' on cows’ milk may also find it harder to get the iron they need. Cows’ milk is also a poor source of iron and is not suitable as a drink until after 12 months. From 1 to 3-years-old about 300-350ml of milk can be given to meet calcium needs, and/or other foods such as yogurts and cheese.

It is common for people to think that vegetarians or vegans may be at high risk of iron deficiency, but studies indicate that vegetarians are no more likely to have iron-deficiency anaemia than non-vegetarians.3

Interestingly, the top sources of iron in the diet for young children aged from 1.5 to 10-years-old are breakfast cereals as they are often fortified. Nevertheless, the more restrictive the diet, the greater the risk of nutrition deficiencies like iron becomes. A well-planned, diverse diet is essential.

Which foods are good sources of iron?

Iron can be found in both animal (haem iron) and plant sources (non-haem iron).

Non-haem iron is not as well absorbed by the body, but vitamin-C rich foods like red peppers, broccoli or kiwi help increase absorption and so should be included with meals containing plant-based sources of iron.

Iron from animal sources

(Easily absorbed by the body)

Approx. amount of iron per serving4,5 Meal Suggestion

Red meat:

  • Beef/lamb mince, stewed

1.3-1.4 mg (60g)

In bolognaises, lasagnes, cottage pies, chillies or as meat balls

Oily fish:

  • Canned sardines in tomato sauce
0.6 mg (23g) In pasta dishes
Eggs 0.9 mg (50g) Scrambled/poached with toast or in vegetable omelettes

Iron from plant sources

(Not as easily absorbed by the body)

Approx. amount of iron per serving Meal Suggestion

Lentils, pulses and beans:

  • Canned or boiled in unsalted water

0.7-1.1 mg (45g)

In casseroles, chillies or made into dips

Dark green leafy vegetables:

  • Watercress
0.7 mg (30g) In soups or stews

Nuts* & seeds:

  • Almond butter
  • Sesame/pumpkin seeds

*Be careful of choking hazards of whole nuts

0.5mg (15g)

1.5 mg (15g)

As a snack on bread or rice cakes

Sprinkled into dishes/desserts

Dried fruit*:

  • Raisins/apricots

*To help protect teeth do not serve as a snack

0.5mg (15g) In breakfast cereals or in plain yogurt

Breakfast cereals fortified with iron*

*Check the labels to make sure these are not high in sugars and are fortified with iron

2.3 mg (19g) Served as breakfast with milk and fruit

Bread:

  • Wholegrain

0.4 mg (20g,                 1 medium slice)

As sandwiches or toast

It's important to note that although liver is a good source of iron, it also contains high amounts of vitamin A, which may be harmful to young children if eaten in large amounts. Therefore if provided, liver should be limited to once a week and given in small portions.

So remember – yes fruit and vegetables are important but encouraging parents and carers to include iron-rich foods in children's diets should not be forgotten!

References

  1. Food Standards Agency and Public Health England. NDNS: results from Years 5 and 6 (combined). 2016 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-5-and-6-combined
  2. Department of Health. Dietary Reference Values of Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom, HMSO. 1991 onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-4887.1992.tb01280.x/abstract
  3. Public Health England. SACN: Iron and Health. 2011 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-iron-and-health-report
  4. McCance and Widdowson. Composition of Foods (7th ed). 2014 onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/nbu.12124/full
  5. British Nutrition Foundation. 5532 a-day - perfect portions for toddler tums! 2013 nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/toddlers/734-5532-a-day.html