Do I need to worry about iron deficiency in my child?

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Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, affecting over 2 billion people each year. However, contrary to popular belief, vegans and vegetarians are no more likely to develop this deficiency than omnivores. If you eat a healthy plant-based diet and are free from chronic disease or infection, you likely are consuming and absorbing sufficient iron.

Iron is an essential nutrient that is needed to form hemoglobin which is required to oxygenate our blood. When iron levels drop too low, one could develop iron deficiency anemia. There are two forms of iron - heme, which comes from the blood of animals, and non-heme which comes from plants. Although heme iron is more easily absorbed, non-heme iron is a more plentiful and healthier source of iron.

The highest sources of iron in a plant-based diet are beans and leafy greens such as soybeans, lentils, spinach, chickpeas, and swiss chard.  Did you know that there is about the same amount of iron in 100 calories of spinach as 1700 calories of sirloin steak? On a per calorie basis, plants are actually a better source of iron.

The absorption of iron is increased up to 6 times by consuming a source of vitamin C along with the source of iron. This is pretty easy as many plants, such as broccoli, contain iron as well as vitamin C! But other ideas are to squeeze lemon juice on your spinach salad or eat your beans with sautéed red peppers, or perhaps ending your meal with some fresh fruit.

There are also some foods that can actually impede iron absorption. One of the most well known is cow’s milk. There are 3 mechanisms by which this occurs. First of all, cow’s milk is very low in iron. Which means that when a person is consuming a large about of cow’s milk, it displaces other iron-rich foods. Secondly, it can cause inflammation in the intestines which leads to microscopic blood loss. And when you lose blood, you also lose the iron. Finally, the calcium and casein in cow’s milk inhibit iron absorption. That’s why it’s important to never give cow’s milk or dairy products to children under the age of 1. If you choose to give your older child dairy products, please limit it to no more than 2 total servings per day.

A few other foods that may inhibit the absorption of iron are tea, coffee, and calcium supplements. For adults who consume these beverages or take calcium supplements, it’s better to avoid consuming them with meals that are rich in iron, especially if iron deficiency is a problem for you.

For those who may still need even more iron in your diet for whatever reason, there are a few other things you can consider: you can cook your meals in a cast iron skillet, you can purchase an iron fish and use it to cook your grains and soups, and you can take a couple of tablespoons of blackstrap molasses once to twice per day. Blackstrap molasses is very high in iron and would be a very sweet way to supplement your iron intake.

Finally, it is important to understand that high iron intake is not ideal. Especially heme iron (the type that comes from meat) may increase the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Additionally, because boys and men do not menstruate, iron overload is possible if they are consuming iron supplements.