“From our Dietitian”
Iron Deficiency in Children | by Kelly Francis, Registered Dietitian
The two most important nutrition goals for young children lie in the prevention of both iron deficiency and obesity. While these appear to be goals on opposing ends of the health spectrum, both undernutrition and over nutrition are classified as malnutrition. Optimum nutrition is required for the promotion of childhood growth and development as well as the prevention of disease in adulthood.
Weight gain we can see but an iron deficiency is less obvious. According to the South African Journal of Clinical Health, iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutrition disorder in the developing world and is responsible for a reduced developmental potential in children who suffer with it. Iron deficiency anaemia in young children impairs cognitive development and negatively impacts learning ability at school. Childhood learning potential affects adulthood earning potential, making iron deficiency a great concern.
Almost every type of cell in the body requires iron for the maintenance of optimal construction and functioning. Iron forms part of many proteins in the body such as haemoglobin which gives blood its oxygen carrying capacity. A deficiency in iron results in weakness, slow physical growth and a poor immune system while impairing cognitive development and delaying psychomotor development. Notable signs of iron deficiency include trouble sleeping and frequent infections.
While children in rural setting make up the bulk of the iron deficient population in South Africa, it is not uncommon for children in urban areas to develop a deficiency in iron. Children who are picky eaters, children with poor appetites or children who regularly substitute meals and snacks with non-nutritious food items are at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Other risk factors include a strict vegetarian or vegan diet or the regular abstinence from meat for religious reasons.
Children are most at risk for developing an iron deficiency during times of rapid growth and times of high nutrition requirements. Iron is required for the entire duration of brain growth. Studies have shown that iron supplementation can reverse some of the developmental impairments resulting from iron deficiency but not all of them which makes prevention and important nutrition goal.
Food sources of iron
Some food sources of iron are better absorbed (haem iron) than others (non-heam iron). Vitamin C however enhances the absorption on non-heam iron typically found in plant foods. Certain beverages inhibit iron absorption and consumption with meals should be avoided. These include tea, coffee, carbonated beverages and milk.
- Organ meats
- Red meat
- Grains (including cereals and breads with the exception of rice)
- Dried beans and legumes
- Dried apricots and raisins
- Nuts and seeds
Vitamin C rich foods (to be included with Non-Heam Iron foods)
- Leafy greens
- Kiwi fruit
- Cereal (iron fortified) with milk and a side of orange wedges
- Whole wheat toast with tuna and lemon mayo (canola mayonnaise with lemon juice)
- Whole-wheat crackers with hummus (made with lemon juice) and cherry tomatoes
- Roast chicken with baby potatoes, broccoli and butternut
- Whole-wheat sandwich with chicken, lettuce and tomato
- Chickpea and butternut curry with green, red and yellow peppers (vegetarian)
- Kidney bean and tomato soup (vegetarian)
- Whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and strawberry slices (vegetarian)
- Add raisins to cereal instead of sugar
When it comes to iron deficiency and the consequences thereof, there is a strong link between nutrition and prevention. The diet required for meeting a child’s requirements for iron will also improve the general nutrition status of a child and this will go a long way in preventing childhood obesity too.
The effects of iron deficiency and anaemia on primary school learners’ scholastic performance
B P S Hlatswayo, 1 BSc, MMed (Paed); S Ntshangase, 2 MA; F P R de Villiers, 1 BA, FCPaed, FACP, PhD