Iron is among the top nutrients that your child’s body needs, as it takes care of multiple bodily functions. From transporting oxygen, boosting immunity and making digestion smooth to regulating body temperature and improving focus, iron plays a major role in ensuring your child’s wellbeing. So, is your kid getting enough iron from his diet? Iron deficiency is a common problem in Indian children and it can hinder your little one’s growth and development. So, learn all about the importance of iron in your child’s body and stay aware of its dietary sources.

Role of iron in a child’s body

Iron is a micronutrient that is necessary for the formation of haemoglobin, the pigment present in the red cells of the blood. Haemoglobin plays an important role in the transportation of oxygen to the various tissues. Reduction in haemoglobin levels can lead to anaemia, which can lead to lower oxygenation in tissues. This can cause tiredness, fatigue, shortness of breath and increased susceptibility to illnesses and infections in the long run. For making healthy haemoglobin in the bone marrow cells, your child needs iron, folic acid, vitamin C, protein and vitamin B12. Deficiency of these nutrients can lead to decreased concentration of haemoglobin.

Prevalence of iron deficiency anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia is a very common problem in India. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) III data has revealed that about 70% of Indian children under the age of 5 years suffer from anaemia. Anaemia erodes the mental and physical capacity of young boys and girls, arresting their physical development. It makes them exhausted and breathless, and affects their memory adversely. This kind of anaemia also reduces the energy required to perform daily tasks. Children can also suffer from iron deficiency without exhibiting relevant symptoms. It has been observed that children with iron deficiency, with or without anaemia, tend to score lower on standardized tests of mental development. They pay less attention to the relevant information needed for problem solving. Poorer cognitive performance and delayed psychomotor development have been reported in infants and preschool children with iron deficiency. Deficiency during early childhood can have long-term consequences, as demonstrated by poorer performance in developmental tests. However, you can watch out for these signs and symptoms of iron deficiency:

  • Pale skin
  • Feeling of fatigue
  • Arrested growth and development
  • Reduced appetite
  • Abnormally rapid breathing
  • Behavioural changes
  • Frequent infections
  • Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, paint or starch

Causes of iron deficiency

Ferritin is the form in which iron is stored in the body. The body draws from these stores when the amount of iron required is more than what is being consumed through food. If your child continues to consume insufficient iron, the iron stores in his or her body will get depleted. Hence, deficiency will develop and affect the haemoglobin levels. The body will first try to function normally, by using its reserves. But, if the reserves get exhausted and are not replenished, a lowering of the haemoglobin levels might be noticed.

Who are at a higher risk of iron deficiency include:

  • Babies who are born prematurely -- more than three weeks before their due date -- or have a low birth weight.
  • Babies who drink cow's milk or goat's milk before the age of 1 year.
  • Breast-fed babies who aren't provided with complementary foods containing iron after 6 months of age.
  • Babies who are given formula milk which isn't fortified with iron.
  • Children aged between 1 and 5 years who drink more than 24 ounces (710 ml) of cow's milk, goat's milk or soy milk in a day.
  • Children suffering from certain health conditions, such as restricted diets or chronic infections.
  • Children who are in between the ages of 1 and 5 years and have been exposed to lead.

Importance of dietary iron and vitamin C

Consuming iron-rich foods is the best way to meet your iron requirements. You will find two types of iron in foods, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body and is found in animal foods such as meat, organ meats, seafood, and chicken. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, such as spinach and beans, and fortified foods. Non-heme iron is not very well absorbed by the body and needs to be consumed with foods rich in vitamin C. Vegetarian sources of iron are mostly present in the ferric form (non-heme form) which is absorbed less efficiently. Hence, this iron needs to be converted into the ferrous form, which is the bioavailable form. Vegetarians can add a dash of lemon juice to iron-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, to enhance the taste and also make iron absorption easier. Bioavailability of iron can be improved by using fermented and sprouted grams and foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, gooseberries (amla), yellow/red peppers, tomatoes, and guava.

Some iron-rich food sources

Vegetarian sources:

  • Green leafy vegetables like spinach, amaranth, fenugreek leaves (methi), drumstick leaves, broccoli, onion greens, beet greens, radish greens, etc.
  • Legumes and pulses like beans, peas, kidney beans or rajma, and sprouts of legumes.
  • Pomegranates
  • Chia and pumpkin seeds
  • Dry fruits like apricots, prunes, dates, raisins, and nuts
  • Brown rice, wheat, millets, and ragi

Non-vegetarian sources:

  • Organ meats like liver
  • Fishes like ahi, bangada, rawas, and chicken and turkey
  • Red meat like lamb
  • Eggs

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