Food With Iron Supplements

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Food With Iron Supplements is an important mineral that is necessary to maintain good health. It assists in the transportation of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body, and it also plays a role in hemoglobin production. In many cases, people who are deficient in iron suffer from fatigue, anemia and shortness of breath. This article will discuss foods with high iron content.

Food With Iron Supplements

When you eat food with iron, iron is absorbed into your body mainly through the upper part of your small intestine.

There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin. It is found in animal foods that originally contained hemoglobin, such as red meats, fish, and poultry (meat, poultry, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron). Your body absorbs the most iron from heme sources. Most nonheme iron is from plant sources.

Iron-Rich Foods

Very good sources of heme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of beef or chicken liver
  • 3 ounces of mussels
  • 3 ounces of oysters

Good sources of heme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of cooked beef
  • 3 ounces of canned sardines, canned in oil

Other sources of heme iron, with 0.6 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of chicken
  • 3 ounces of cooked turkey
  • 3 ounces of ham
  • 3 ounces of veal

Other sources of heme iron, with 0.3 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna

Iron in plant foods such as lentils, beans, and spinach is nonheme iron. This is the form of iron added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods. Our bodies are less efficient at absorbing nonheme iron, but most dietary iron is nonheme iron.

Very good sources of nonheme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • Breakfast cereals enriched with iron
  • One cup of cooked beans
  • One-half cup of tofu

Good sources of nonheme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • One-half cup of canned lima beans, red kidney beans, or chickpeas
  • One cup of dried apricots
  • One cup of cooked enriched egg noodles
  • One-fourth cup of wheat germ
  • 1 ounce of pumpkin, sesame, or squash seeds

Other sources of nonheme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more, include:

  • One-half cup of cooked split peas
  • 1 ounce of peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, roasted almonds, roasted cashews, or sunflower seeds
  • One-half cup of dried seedless raisins, peaches, or prunes
  • One medium stalk of broccoli
  • One cup of raw spinach
  • One cup of pasta (cooked, it becomes 3-4 cups)
  • One slice of bread, half of a small pumpernickel bagel, or bran muffin
  • One cup of brown or enriched rice

How to Get More Iron From Your Food

Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others can hinder it. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods. Calcium itself can interfere.To improve your absorption of iron, eat it along with a good source of vitamin C — such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries — or eat nonheme iron foods with a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group.

If you have trouble getting enough iron from food sources, you may need an iron supplement. But speak to your health care provider about the proper dosage first and follow their instructions carefully. Because very little iron is excreted from the body, iron can accumulate in body tissues and organs when the normal storage sites — the liver, spleen, and bone marrow — are full. Although iron toxicity from food sources is rare, deadly overdoses are possible with supplements.

Healthy Foods That Are Great Sources of Iron

The good news is that a lot of common foods contain iron — from oysters and pumpkin seeds to fortified cereals and red meat.

Here are 10 foods high in iron that can help you get all of the mineral you need.

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Eggs, Red Meat, Liver, and Giblets Are Top Sources of Heme Iron

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in addition to some non-heme iron, lots of animal proteins have heme iron, including ground beef (4 ounces of 93 percent lean ground meat provides 2.63 mg, meaning it’s a good source), eggs (1.68 mg in two large eggs), turkey (1.23 mg per 3 ounces of dark-meat turkey), and pork loin (just over 0.5 mg per 3 ounces).

Organ meats like liver and giblets are especially rich in iron. For example, 113 grams of chicken giblets has 6.1 mg of iron, making it an excellent source. Meanwhile, liver serves up an impressive amount of iron. One ounce of pork liver comes packed with 6.61 mg of iron, another excellent source. If your cholesterol is high, or if you are pregnant, avoid liver. MedlinePlus notes that liver is high in cholesterol (1 ounce contains 85.3 mg of cholesterol), and research links eating liver to possible birth defects.

RELATED: The 10 Best Foods to Fight Stress

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Oysters, Mussels, and Clams Are Rich Sources of Iron

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Go ahead and splurge on the seafood appetizer — it comes with a generous side of iron! Bivalve mollusks like clams, mussels, and oysters are loaded with the important nutrient, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Per the USDA, five raw oysters deliver 3.23 mg of iron, making it a good source. They are also an excellent source of zinc, with 27.5 mg, as well as vitamin B12, with 6.1 micrograms.

As the NIH points out, zinc helps the immune system fend off viruses and bacteria, and vitamin B12 helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy.

If oysters, mussels, and clams aren’t on your regular menu, common seafood choices have some iron as well, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, 3 ounces of chinook salmon has 0.2 mg of iron, per the USDA.

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Chickpeas Are a Vegetarian-Friendly Iron Powerhouse

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Animal products are known for being sources of iron, but that doesn’t mean plant-based staples can’t help you meet your goal, too. Chickpeas, a type of legume, provide 3.7 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, making them an excellent source. They also deliver lean, plant-based protein — 14.6 g per cup, to be exact.

Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are a tasty addition to salads and pasta dishes, and they can be an unexpected way to mix up salsa. If you’re not a fan of the texture, puree chickpeas to create homemade iron-rich hummus. Adding lemon juice to your hummus will increase the vitamin C in the snack and help your body more easily absorb the non-heme iron in the legumes, because according to the Mayo Clinic, when you eat an iron-rich food at the same time as a vitamin C–rich food, you enhance your body’s ability to absorb the iron.

RELATED: The Top Foods High in Vitamin C

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Fortified Breakfast Cereals Can Be Packed With Iron

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Is a bowl of cereal your breakfast of choice? Opt for a fortified version to start off your day with a dose of iron — Mayo Clinic recommends it as a way to up your iron total. Check the nutrition label for the amount of iron per serving. (And be sure to opt for the box with the least amount of added sugar.)

Per the USDA, raisin bran has 9.39 mg of iron per cup, and that makes it an excellent source. It is also an excellent source of fiber, a common characteristic of fortified cereals. The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fiber can help relieve constipation and lower your odds of developing diabetes and heart disease.

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Pumpkin Seeds May Be Small, But They Have Lots of Iron

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Don’t underestimate these crunchy seeds that you start seeing around Halloween. A 1-ounce serving of raw pumpkin seeds without shells has 2.7 mg of iron, per the USDA, providing a good iron source in a variety of dishes. Add the seeds to homemade trail mix or bread or muffin recipes, or use them as a crunchy topping for yogurt, cereal, or salad. You may also try them alone for a quick and healthy snack — 1 ounce packs 7 grams of protein. Win-win!

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Edamame Is Filled With Iron and Other Essential Nutrients, Too

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A common sushi sidekick, a cup of these raw green soybeans contains about 9 mg of iron, per the USDA, making them an excellent source of the nutrient. Not to mention, they’re a good source of minerals such as copper, which helps keep blood vessels and the immune system healthy, according to the NIH. A cup of soybeans is also a good source of copper and an excellent source of manganese and fiber, as well as provides plant-based protein.

Largeman-Roth recommends including soybeans in stir-fries or making an edamame dip. Soy beans make a tasty addition to pasta dishes, too, or you can simply enjoy them on their own, steamed and sprinkled with a little sea salt.

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Prepare Black Beans With Vitamin C–Rich Veggies for an Iron Win

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Boiled black beans serve up 3.61 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, for an excellent source. To rev iron absorption, pair them with healthy fare such as kale, bell peppers, broccoli, or cauliflower. As MedlinePlus notes, those foods are high in vitamin C, which is a nutrient that aids the absorption of non-heme iron. Add beans to a salad, puree them into a dip to eat with raw veggies, or toss them into a stir-fry. The recipe possibilities for a can of black beans are endless! And if you’re looking for more variety, kidney, pinto, and fava beans all have iron, too, according to the USDA.

RELATED: 10 Nutritious Family Dinners to Make With Beans

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Lentils Are Another Legume With Lots of Iron

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Another legume worth an honorable mention in the iron department is lentils. Cooked lentils offer an excellent source of the mineral with about 6.59 mg per cup, per the USDA. And they offer 15.6 g of fiber per cup, too, making them a rich source. Fiber may help lower cholesterol and stabilize your blood sugar, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Lentils are also an extremely versatile ingredient in the kitchen — they’re a great addition to everything from soups and salads to burgers and chili.

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Spinach, Eaten Either Cooked or Raw, Offers Iron

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No matter how you prepare it, spinach is an excellent source of iron. Per the USDA, 1 cup of this healthy green (frozen and then boiled) delivers 3.72 mg of iron, as well as some protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and E.

Calcium is necessary to keep your bones strong, according to the Mayo Clinic; vitamin A is beneficial for your vision and immunity, the Mayo Clinic notes; and vitamin E helps your vision, as well as your blood, brain and skin, per the Mayo Clinic.

The same serving size of raw spinach, which is more loosely packed than when prepared cooked, gives you almost 1 mg of iron, offering some of the mineral, according to the USDA.

While the leafy green often gets a bad rap in the taste department, especially among kids, it’s an easy ingredient to sneak into recipes undetected for a secret iron-boost (and as a non-heme iron source, it’s especially beneficial when paired with foods high in vitamin C, like some veggies, suggests Anzlovar, and as research shows). “I love using sautéed spinach in vegetable lasagna,” says Largeman-Roth. “It also works well in mini frittatas, which my kids love.” If eating spinach in a dish doesn’t sound appealing, try this green mixed into a naturally sweet fruit smoothie.

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Sesame Seeds Taste Nutty — and Have a Kick of Iron

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“Sesame seeds have a wonderful nutty taste and are a rich source of iron,” says Largeman-Roth. The seeds contain some iron — 1.31 mg per tablespoon, per the USDA — and offer a slew of other essential nutrients, like copper. Not to mention, they contain phosphorus, vitamin E, and zinc.

An easy way to incorporate the seeds into your diet is to sprinkle them on a salad: Each tablespoon will add over a milligram of iron to your daily count — and when you’re aiming for 18 mg a day, every bit counts!

Does Taking Iron Supplements With Food Decrease Absorption?

If you’re taking iron supplements to restore your levels and combat anemia, with symptoms of great fatigue, hair loss, and pale skin, you should do so on an empty stomach when possible. Supplemental iron is best absorbed when taken alone, without food. But, many people find that when they take iron without food, they suffer nausea, cramps and diarrhea. The only way to tolerate the pills is by taking iron with a bit of food. If you feel better taking iron with food, choose it wisely. Certain foods hamper absorption of the supplement more than others.

Who Needs Supplemental Iron

If you’ve been diagnosed with iron-deficient anemia, your doctor will recommend you take supplemental iron to build up your stores of this mineral. People at risk of iron deficiency include people who have lost a lot of blood due to ulcers or cancer, or women through their menstrual cycle. If your diet is deficient in iron, such as a strict vegan diet, or if your body has an increased need, such as during pregnancy, it’s easy to fall short in the nutrient.

Signs of iron-deficient anemia include fatigue, pale skin, dizziness, fast heart beats, shortness of breath, headache and extreme sensitivity to cold.

Foods That Interfere With Iron Absorption

Dairy products are an absolute no-no with iron. This includes milk, yogurt, cheese and kefir. It’s the calcium that inhibits iron absorption, so don’t take them with your calcium supplements or antacids, which contain calcium, either. Leave a two-hour window around your dairy intake and iron supplement. Soy protein can also prevent you from absorbing iron supplements.

High-fiber foods, particularly bran, legumes and raw vegetables, also inhibit iron absorption, so skip the celery sticks and bean tacos around the time you take your supplement. Also, if you take your supplement first thing in the morning, avoid washing it down with a cup of coffee. Caffeinated drinks and foods also interfere with iron absorption.

Vitamin C Is a Good Choice With Iron

Vitamin C can help promote iron absorption. Have a glass of orange juice or a cup of cubed cantaloupe alongside your iron supplement.

Natural Sources of Iron

Iron comes in two forms in your food. Heme iron, which is best absorbed, is found in animal products, including beef, organ meats and oysters. Non-heme iron is present in plant foods, with some of the best sources being raisins, prune juice and spinach. Fortified grains, such as breakfast cereals, are another good source of non-heme iron.

Iron and iron deficiency

Summary

Read the full fact sheet

  • Iron is an important dietary mineral that is involved in various bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in the blood.
  • Dietary iron is found in both animal and plant products.
  • Certain foods and drinks affect how much iron your body absorbs.
  • Iron deficiency is when the stores of iron in your body are too low.
  • Common causes of iron deficiency include not getting enough iron in your diet, chronic blood loss, pregnancy and vigorous exercise.
  • Some people become iron deficient if they are unable to absorb iron.
  • Iron deficiency can be treated by adding iron-rich foods to the diet.
  • If you have iron deficiency anaemia, your GP (doctor) may recommend that you take iron supplements.
  • Keep iron supplements away from children – overdoses can be fatal in young children and infants.
A platter of food containing apricots, peanuts, broccoli and other forods.

What is iron?

Iron is an important mineral hat is involved in various bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in the blood. This is essential for providing energy for daily life.

Good sources of iron include red meat, offal and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Iron is lost from the body through sweat, shedding intestinal cells, and blood loss.

About one third of the world’s population is iron deficient. Menstruating women are at greater risk than men and postmenopausal women of iron deficiency. It is thought that up to 5% of the Australian population has iron deficiency anaemia.

Roles of iron in the body

Some of the many roles of iron in the body include:

  • Oxygen transport – red blood cells contain haemoglobin, a complex protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Haemoglobin is partly made from iron, and accounts for about two thirds of the body’s iron.
  • Myoglobin – a special protein that helps store oxygen in muscle cells. Myoglobin contains iron and is responsible for the red colour of muscle.
  • Enzymes – many enzymes throughout the body contain iron, including those involved in energy production. Enzymes are catalysts (increase the rate of chemical reaction) that drive many cell functions.
  • Immune system– proper functioning of the immune system relies, in part, on sufficient iron. The immune system helps us fight infection.

The average person needs to absorb just a small amount of iron each day to stay healthy (around 1 mg for adult males and 1.5 mg for menstruating females). To achieve this, however, we need to consume several times that amount. This is because our bodies absorb only a fraction of the iron contained in the foods we eat.

The Australian Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for iron is the amount of dietary iron required to meet the needs of most of the population. This amount is different for different age groups and life stages.

Age and life stageRecommended dietary intake of iron (mg/day)
Babies 0–6 months – breastfed0.2 
Babies 0–6 months – formula fedThe iron in formula is less well absorbed (about 10–20 %) than the iron in breastmilk. This is why infant formula available in Australia is iron-fortified. Following the instructions on the formula packet will provide your baby with the iron intake they need to meet their daily requirements. This intake will be significantly higher than for breast-fed infants.
Infants aged 7–12 months11
Girls and boys aged 1–3 years9
Girls and boys aged 4–8 years10
Girls and boys aged 9–13 years8
Boys aged 14–18 years11
Girls aged 14–18 years15
Women aged 19–50 years18
Pregnant women27
Breastfeeding women aged over 18 years9
Breastfeeding women aged 14–18 years10
Women aged 51 years and over8
Men aged 19 years and over8

Types of iron in our diets

The 2 types of iron found in our diets are:

  • Haem iron – found in animal tissue such as beef, lamb, kangaroo, chicken and fish. Offal products such as liver and kidney are particularly rich in haem iron (however pregnant women should avoid eating too much offal as it contains large amounts of vitamin A, which can cause birth defects). This form of iron is most easily absorbed by the body.
  • Non-haem iron – found in animal tissue, animal-based products and plant foods such as dried beans and lentils. Good vegetarian sources of non-haem iron include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, wholegrains and legumes (beans and lentils). If you are vegetarian and have no animal tissue in your diet, you may need almost twice as much dietary iron each day as non-vegetarians. Plant-based sources of iron include: dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, raisins, nuts, prunes, dried apricots, seeds, dried beans and peas, and iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas.

How much iron do we absorb from our diet?

How much iron you absorb from your diet depends on how much iron your body is storing.

The healthy body absorbs around 18% of the available iron from a typical western diet (which includes animal foods) and about 10% from a vegetarian diet. However, you may be absorbing much less than that, even if your diet includes iron-rich foods.

The most significant influence on iron absorption is the amount of iron already stored in your body. The body stores iron in various places, including the liver. If your stores are high, your body absorbs less iron from the foods you eat. Conversely, low iron stores increase your ability to absorb iron.

Dietary factors affecting iron absorption

Certain foods and drinks affect how much iron your body absorbs.

To boost iron absorption:

  • Consume vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables).
  • Include animal protein (haem) with plant (non-haem) sources of iron, such as meat with beans – for example, beef and kidney beans in a chilli con carne.
  • Cook plant sources of iron (such as vegetables). In most cases, cooking increases the amount of available non-haem iron in vegetables. For example, the body absorbs 6% of the iron from raw broccoli, compared to 30% from cooked broccoli.

Foods and drinks that reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron:

  • Soy proteins can reduce absorption from plant sources.
  • Tea, coffee and wine contain tannins that reduce iron absorption by binding to the iron and carrying it out of the body.
  • Phytates and fibres found in wholegrains such as bran can reduce the absorption of iron and other minerals.
  • Inadequate vitamin A in your diet could lead to iron deficiency because vitamin A helps to release stored iron.
  • Calcium and phosphorus reduce the absorption of plant-sourced (non-haem) iron.

High-risk groups for iron deficiency

One in 8 people aged 2 years and over does not consume enough iron on average to meet their needs. If you do not have enough iron in your body, it is called being ‘iron deficient’. This can make you feel tired and lower your immunity. Including iron-rich foods in your diet can help.

People who are at an increased risk of iron deficiency, include:

  • babies given cow’s or other milk instead of breastmilk or infant formula
  • toddlers, particularly if they drink too much cow’s milk
  • teenage girls
  • menstruating women, especially those who have heavy periods
  • women using an IUD (because they generally have heavier periods)
  • pregnant women
  • breastfeeding women
  • people with poor diets such as people who are alcohol dependent, people who follow ‘fad diets’, or people with eating disorders
  • people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Aboriginal Australians
  • athletes in training
  • people with intestinal worms
  • regular blood donors
  • people with conditions that predispose them to bleeding, such as gum disease or stomach ulcerspolyps  or cancers of the bowel
  • people with chronic diseases such as cancerautoimmune diseasesheart failure  or renal (kidney) disease
  • people taking aspirin as a regular medication
  • people who have a lower than normal ability to absorb or use iron, such as someone with coeliac disease.

Stages and symptoms of iron deficiency

Most of your body’s iron is in the haemoglobin of your red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your body. Extra iron is stored in your liver and is used by your body when your dietary intake is too low.

If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, your body’s iron stores get lower over time.

This can cause:

  • Iron depletion – when haemoglobin levels are normal, but your body only has a small amount of stored iron, which will soon run out. This stage usually has no obvious symptoms.
  • Iron deficiency – when your stored and blood-borne iron levels are low and your haemoglobin levels have dropped below normal. You may experience some symptoms, including tiredness.
  • Iron deficiency anaemia – when your haemoglobin levels are so low that your blood is unable to deliver enough oxygen to your cells. Symptoms include looking very pale, breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. People with iron deficiency anaemia may also have reduced immune function, so they are more vulnerable to infection. In children, iron deficiency anaemia can affect growth and brain development.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia in children

The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia in children may include:

  • behavioural problems
  • repeat infections
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • breathlessness
  • increased sweating
  • strange ‘food’ cravings (pica) like eating dirt
  • failure to grow at the expected rate.

Causes of iron deficiency in adults

In adults, some of the common causes of iron deficiency include:

  • Not getting enough iron in your diet (also known as ‘inadequate dietary intake’). There are many reasons why someone’s dietary intake of iron could be too low, for example due to a poorly balanced vegetarian diet, chronic fad dieting or having limited access to a wide range of fresh foods.
  • Blood loss – iron deficiency easily occurs in situations of chronic (ongoing) blood loss. Common causes include heavy menstrual periods, regular blood donation, regular nosebleeds, other chronic conditions that involve bleeding (such as peptic ulcers, polyps or cancers in the large intestine), and certain medications, particularly aspirin.
  • Increased need for iron – if you are pregnant or breastfeeding your body needs more iron. If this increased need isn’t met, iron deficiency can quickly occur.
  • Exercise – athletes are prone to iron deficiency because regular exercise increases the body’s need for iron in several ways. For example, hard training promotes red blood cell production (which requires iron), and iron is lost through sweating.
  • Inability to absorb iron – healthy adults absorb about 10 to 15% of dietary iron, but some people’s bodies are unable to absorb or use iron from food.

Causes of iron deficiency in children

Major risk factors for the development of iron deficiency in children include:

  • prematurity and low birth weight
  • exclusive breastfeeding beyond 6 months (not introducing solids)
  • high intake of cow’s milk in young children less than 2 years of age
  • low or no meat intake
  • vegetarian and vegan eating
  • poor diet in the second year of life
  • possible gastrointestinal diseases
  • lead poisoning.

Babies, children and teenagers undergo rapid growth spurts, which increase their need for iron. The main causes of iron deficiency in children by age group include:

  • Babies less than 6 months old – newborns receive their iron stores in the uterus (womb), which means the mother’s diet during pregnancy is very important. Low birth weight or premature babies are at increased risk of iron deficiency and will need iron supplements (under medical supervision only). See your doctor for further advice.
  • Babies aged 6 months to one year – a baby’s iron stores run low in the second half of their first year. Iron deficiency can result if their diet doesn’t include enough iron-rich solid food. At around 6 months, 2 servings a day of plain, iron-fortified infant cereal mixed with breastmilk or infant formula can start to be given. Plain pureed meats can soon be offered with other solids, once your baby is used to the cereal. Late introduction of solids into the baby’s diet is a common cause of iron deficiency in this age group.
  • Children aged one to 5 years – breastmilk contains a small amount of iron, but prolonged breastfeeding can lead to iron deficiency, especially if breastmilk replaces solid foods in the diet. Low-iron milks such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk and soymilk should not be given until 12 months of age. Children who drink milk in preference to eating solid foods are in danger of iron deficiency.
  • Teenagers – adolescent girls are at risk because of a number of factors, including growth spurts at puberty, iron loss through periods (menstruation) and risk of under-nutrition due to fad dieting that restricts eating.
  • In general – gastrointestinal disorders, such as coeliac disease, are a rare but possible cause of anaemia in children.

Suggestions for parents – babies

Some suggestions to prevent iron deficiency in babies less than 12 months of age include:

  • Have an iron-rich diet during pregnancy. Red meat is the best source of iron.
  • Tests to check for anaemia should be conducted during pregnancy. If your doctor prescribes iron supplements, take them only according to instructions.
  • Breastfeed your baby or choose iron-fortified infant formulas.
  • Don’t give your baby cow’s milk or other fluids that may displace iron-rich solid foods before 12 months of age.
  • Don’t delay the introduction of solid foods. Start giving your baby pureed foods when they are around 6 months of age. Fortified baby cereal made with iron-fortified infant formula or breastmilk is generally the first food to offer. This is because of its iron content, but also because its texture is easy to change. Introduce soft lumpy foods or mashed foods at around 7 months.

Suggestions for parents – young children

To prevent iron deficiency in toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Include lean red meat in their diet 3 to 4 times a week. Offer meat alternatives such as dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, canned beans, poultry, fish, eggs and small amounts of nuts and nut pastes. These are important sources of iron in your child’s daily diet. If your family follows a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may need to seek advice from a dietitian to ensure you are meeting all your child’s dietary needs.
  • Include vitamin C in their diet as this helps the body to absorb more iron. Make sure your child has plenty of foods rich in vitamin C like oranges, lemons, mandarins, berries, kiwifruit, tomatoes, cabbage, capsicum and broccoli.
  • Encourage solid foods at mealtimes and take care that toddlers are not ‘filling up’ on drinks between meals.
  • Remember that chronic diarrhoea can deplete your child’s iron stores, while intestinal parasites such as worms can cause iron deficiency. See your doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment.
  • Fussy eaters may be at risk due to poor intake or lack of variety in the foods they eat. Seek advice from your dietitian, local doctor or child health nurse on how to manage a fussy eater.

Suggestions for parents – teenagers

To prevent iron deficiency in teenagers:

  • Talk to your child about the importance of iron. Help them become informed enough to make their own responsible food choices.
  • Encourage iron-rich foods and meals, such as iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads, and serve meat, poultry or fish with the evening meal.
  • Offer good sources of non-haem iron such as dried beans, lentils, peas, broccoli, spinach, beans, fortified cereals, breads and whole grains if your child wants to avoid red meat or become vegetarian. Vitamin C-rich foods should also be encouraged, such as fruits or vegetables with meals.
  • Encourage only moderate amounts of tea and coffee, as these can interfere with iron absorption.

Diagnosis of iron deficiency

Make an appointment with your doctor if you think you may be iron deficient. Diagnosis aims to exclude other illnesses that can have similar symptoms, such as coeliac disease.

Diagnosis methods include:

  • physical examination
  • medical history
  • blood tests.

Treatment for iron deficiency

Treatment for iron deficiency depends on your iron status, and the underlying cause:

  • If you have iron depletion , your doctor will give you information about including iron-rich foods in your diet. You will have another blood test in around 6 months to check that your iron level has improved.
  • If you have iron deficiency , your doctor will give you dietary advice and closely monitor your diet. They will encourage you to have iron-rich foods and discourage you from having foods and drinks (such as bran, tea and coffee) that can interfere with iron absorption with meals. They will regularly review your iron status and may prescribe supplements.
  • If you have iron deficiency anaemia , your doctor will prescribe iron supplements. It may take 6 months to one year for your body to restock its iron stores. Your iron levels will be regularly reviewed with blood tests.
  • If you have an underlying problem that is causing your iron deficiency, it is very important that the cause is investigated. If it is a medical cause, it is important that it be treated appropriately.

Don’t self-diagnose iron deficiency

Since iron supplements are available without prescription, it can be tempting to self-diagnose, but this is not recommended because:

  • Having too much iron in the body can be toxic and even fatal.
  • Fatigue, paleness, dizziness and breathlessness are symptoms of many other health conditions, not just iron deficiency anaemia. Some of these other conditions are serious. Incorrectly self-diagnosing and self-medicating can be dangerous and can waste valuable time in getting the treatment you need. Getting the right treatment in the early stages of a disease offers a greater chance of recovery. So always visit your GP if you think you could be iron deficient.
  • Iron supplements won’t help the symptoms if iron deficiency anaemia isn’t the problem. And you could be spending money on tablets you or your child don’t need.
  • Taking an iron supplement when you don’t need it can interfere with your body’s absorption of other minerals, including zinc and copper.
  • About one in 300 people have haemochromatosis, which is an inherited condition that prompts the body to absorb more iron than usual. Excess iron damages the body’s tissues and increases the risk of cancers and heart disease. People with haemochromatosis need to limit how much iron they consume.

Do not self-diagnose or give your child over-the-counter iron supplements, because an overdose of iron can cause death. In infants and young children, 20 mg per day is the safe upper limit – most iron supplements contain around 100 mg per tablet.

It is important to keep iron supplements tightly capped and away from children’s reach, as iron tablets are often mistaken as lollies by children.

If you suspect an iron overdose, call your doctor or the Victorian Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 immediately (24 hours, 7 days) or visit your local hospital emergency department.

Iron supplements

If you’ve been advised to take iron supplements, keep in mind that:

  • The most common side effect of iron supplements is dark coloured or black stools (poo), so don’t be alarmed by this change to your bowel habits.
  • Other common side effects include nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhoea. See your doctor for advice but, generally speaking, treatment involves lowering the recommended dose for a short time to give the body time to adjust.
  • Iron supplements should be taken on an empty stomach, if possible.
  • Supplements should be taken exactly as advised by your doctor. The human body isn’t very good at excreting iron and you could poison yourself if you take more than the recommended dose.

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