Nutrition plays a critical role in the healthy development of growing babies and toddlers. There are certain nutrients that you should pay particular attention to during the early years as they can impact the overall wellbeing of your child significantly.
Iron is one of the most important nutrients in a toddler’s diet. It can be difficult to gauge whether your little bub is meeting their requirements, so read on for the down-low on iron rich foods and ways to boost absorption to ensure they are!
Iron – Why Is It Important?
Iron is involved in the production of red blood cells and transportation of oxygen around the body. In addition to this it is needed for general growth, muscle formation and to support the immune system. Without adequate amounts of iron, toddlers can become anaemic, tired and sick and might not grow and develop to their full potential.
Signs of low iron
- Unexplained loss of appetite
- Extreme tiredness
- Shortness of breath
- Headaches or dizziness
- Slower than expected growth.
It’s important to seek professional medical advice if you suspect your toddler may be iron deficient or anaemic.
Types of Iron
There are two types of iron you should be aware of:
- Haem Iron – this is the type of iron you find in animal products (e.g. red meat, chicken, fish). It is much more readily absorbed by the body.
- Non-haem iron – this is the type of iron you find in plant-based products (e.g. legumes, fortified cereals, vegetables, grains). This type of iron is not as readily absorbed as haem iron.
It’s important to include a variety of both haem and non-haem iron in your toddlers diet.
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the absorption of iron. There are certain foods/nutrients that can influence the absorption of iron.
Vitamin C – Consuming iron rich foods in combination with sources of vitamin C (like citrus fruits, peaches, berries, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, capsicum) will help increase the iron absorbed form that meal. In fact several studies have shown that including vitamin C can at least double the absorption of iron.
Calcium – Avoid the consumption of dairy with meals. This is because calcium can actually reduce the absorption of iron. Instead, feed cheese, yoghurt and milk as a between meal snack.
Other iron inhibitors include tea, coffee, coca cola.
If your baby is less than 6 months of age, he probably has enough iron. Babies are usually born with sufficient iron stores to last them for about the first 4 – 6 months of life. In addition to the iron your little one is using from his iron stores, he will also get some iron from breast milk or formula during the first six months.
Around 6 months of age, the iron stores are depleted, which is when your child should start on solid foods to ensure they are receiving adequate iron intakes. When first transitioning to solids, fortified baby cereal along with breastmilk will be the predominant sources of iron. It is also a good idea to start including some meat puree as a rich source of iron.
Once your baby becomes a toddler (1-3 years) his daily iron requirements actually drop slightly (from 11mg/day to around 9mg/day) as toddlers don’t require as much iron as babies because they are not growing quite as fast. During the toddler years you want to try and incorporate iron-rich foods as the main component of a meal 2-3 times a day.
Top 10 Foods Highest in Iron
- Lean red meats – These guys have the best source of haem iron and including these regularly is a great way of contributing towards iron intake. Lamb and beef are two of the richest sources of iron.
- Iron fortified cereals – With the endless varieties available in the supermarket, it’s important to opt for an iron-fortified cereal. Although they’re non-haem based, they are found in abundance and can definitely boost your little one’s iron intake.
- Eggs – eggs are so versatile and can be enjoyed fried, sunny side up, poached or scrambled – with the added bonus of a high iron content. These guys can be easily enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner – or even as a snack!
- Legumes – Think lentils, kidney beans, split peas – any kind of bean and pea. They contain a good amount of iron, however are non-haem in nature, so are absorbed at a lower rate.
- Dark green leafy veg – This includes veggies like spinach or silverbeet that have a good source of non-haem iron and can be easily incorporated to many meals like sandwiches or pastas.
- Tofu – Tofu is made from soybeans and can significantly contribute to your bub’s iron intake and can be used as a meat alternative.
- Fish – Although not as high in iron as their other animal-based products, they can be an easy addition to sandwiches, pastas or wraps.
- Nuts – Almonds and cashews are a great source of iron. Other nuts like macadamias, walnuts and peanuts provide are slightly lower. Whole nuts are a choking hazard and are not recommended before the age of 3, so you could provide them in the form of a spread to your little one.
- Seeds – Pumpkin seeds are another great source, however similar to nuts, is not recommended to replace other foods in the food group. Although seeds often do not make up the main component of a meal, they can be an iron-rich sprinkle addition to your meal. However, whole seeds are a choking hazard and are not recommended before the age of 3. You may consider blitzing them before adding them into your meal.
- Dried fruit – Dried fruits like apricots, prunes and currants can provide a good source of iron. However, it’s not recommended to exceed 1 serve (30g – small handful) a day because it’s lower in fibre compared to fresh fruits.
This piece was written by Anna & Alex in conjunction with Lucy Kim who is a dietitian intern at The Biting Truth.
To read more science-based nutrition articles, click here.