Kids are at greatest risk during infancy and adolescence, when their diet may not meet the increased iron demands of their rapidly growing bodies. Overweight children are also at higher risk, studies show, possibly because they tend to snack more frequently and eat greater amounts of junk food.
Untreated, iron deficiency can eventually lead to anemia, which can seriously delay a child’s growth and neurological development.
Luckily, iron deficiency is easy to detect and treat. “A blood test at the doctor’s office can tell. And in many cases, getting iron levels up can be as simple as changing what your child is eating,” says Graf.
Here, some basic ways to help your child avoid iron deficiency from the start:
- Know the signs: Kids with iron deficiency may be sluggish, look tired and pale, or get sick often.
- Breastfeed your baby, if possible: Breastfed infants are at lower risk because the type of iron contained in human milk is extremely easy for their bodies to absorb, according to Shari Portnoy, a dietitian at the Day Care Council of New York.
- Don’t skip breakfast. “Breakfast is an easy time to get some iron into the diet, since breakfast cereals as well as bread are generally fortified with iron,” says Graf. Plus, juices and fruits that are rich in vitamin C help the body absorb iron.
- Go easy on the milk. Milk offers many nutritional benefits, but it also limits the body’s ability to absorb iron efficiently. Kids who fill up on milk may also be sacrificing space for iron-rich foods in their diets. The National Institutes of Health recommend that children older than 12 months drink no more than 16 to 24 ounces of milk per day (or up to about three small glasses).
- Eat whole foods and a well-rounded diet. Lean meats, poultry and shellfish are among the best sources of heme iron, or iron from animal tissue, which is most easily absorbed by the body. Other sources of iron include greens, legumes, whole eggs, soybeans, whole grains and dried fruits.
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