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How can Iron deficiency affect your child's appetite, mood & growth?

Iron is a very important mineral for our nutrition. Especially in childhood, the body needs iron to enable healthy growth and brain development (IQ potential), creating social skills and more. Yes, iron plays a key role in the function of many organs and affects our bodies in many ways:

  • Brain – Iron is important for brain function. It can directly affect the memory, thinking ability, concentration, educational achievements, changes in mood and more.

  • Blood cells – Iron is essential to producing hemoglobin and red blood cells.

  • Muscles – The amount of iron in the body can influence muscle function: strength, power, aerobic capacity and overall muscle activity.

Iron & Growth

Iron is especially important for growth. When your child is in various stages of growth, his body needs a high supply of iron from food to meet the body's needs. Experiencing iron deficiency at those stages can have a significant influence on growth velocity, preventing the child from achieving his highest growth potential. Other side effects of iron deficiency include headaches, dizziness, changes in mood (depressed/upset), pale skin, changes in appetite, and reduced ability to function during the day due to fatigue/weakness.

Iron Deficiency & Eating Habits: An iron deficiency can directly affect your child appetite in two contrasting ways:

  1. Loss of appetite- The child may lose interest in food. He may not enjoy many types of foods and eat less than his body needs for growth and proper function. Many kinds of foods he previously liked suddenly do not taste as good, and the child does not want to eat them anymore. In many cases, the child does not feel hungry or feels full after eating only a small amount.

  2. Cravings for carbs and sweets- This is a completely different eating behavior and includes cravings for foods rich in carbohydrates, especially sweets (chocolate in many cases). The cravings will appear specifically in the afternoon and evening/nighttime. They can be connected to periods of tiredness and the desire to eat sweets as a source of energy. In many cases, those children will not want to eat meat and foods high in protein, although their body needs the iron supply. They will demand more carbs and candy/chocolate! This can cause an unbalanced diet and weight gain (overweight/obesity).

What can you do to change those eating habits?

  • Supply more foods rich in iron for their daily nutrition.

  • Consider adding an iron supplement if there is a major deficiency (according to blood tests results).

  • Work with your child on building healthy eating habits, consuming a wide variety of foods and controlling the amount of carbs in each meal and his overall daily menu.

How to detect iron deficiency during growth stages

While a child is growing taller and developing quickly, it is especially important to include a regular combination of iron sources in his diet. If the child looks pale, tired, has changes in appetite (increased hunger/lack of appetite), and is perhaps also more upset/moody, it is recommended to check for iron deficiency, a condition called “Anemia.”

Share those symptoms and your concerns with his pediatrician. Ask about doing a blood test to check his blood counts (red blood cells and hemoglobin). It is also recommended to test for “ferritin,” which will check the status of iron in the body's reservoirs.

How much iron does your child need per day?

Age (years) I Boy (mg) I Girl (mg)

1-3 7 7

4-8 10 10

9-13 8 8

14-18 11 15

Iron sources in food

The best sources of iron are found in animal products. Those foods contain a compound called “Heme,” which contains iron. Further, our bodies can absorb the iron from them efficiently. Foods rich in “Heme” include red meat, internal organs (liver, kidneys), and duck. There is also iron in other poultry, fish and eggs, but in smaller amounts compared to red meat.

Good to know: Meat's red color indicates a high presence of iron. This is because iron is red in color and is the mineral that makes our blood appear red! To choose meat portions rich in iron, we can study the meat's color and know we chose right if it has a strong red color (before cooking).

Iron can also be obtained from plant sources, but the amount will be low and its absorption is less effective. Iron-rich plant sources include leafy greens, legumes, tahini, sesame seeds, almonds, other nuts, dried fruits, legumes and more.

Tip for better iron absorption from plant sources: To increase iron absorption from plant sources, combine them with foods rich in vitamin C at the same meal. For example, add lemon juice to your lettuce salad or your tahini.

Food sources of iron

Food I Serving Size I Iron amount (mg)

Animal Source

Liver (chicken, turkey, lamb) cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 6.2-9.7

Liver, beef, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 4.9

Kidney (beef, veal) cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 2.3-4.4

Duck, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 1.8-7.4

Beef, various cuts, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 2.5-3.8

Ground meat (beef, lamb) cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 1.3-2.1

Chicken Various, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 0.4-2.0

Ground meat (turkey, chicken) cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 0.7-0.8

Turkey, various cuts, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 0.3-0.8

Seafood & fish

Oysters, cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 3.3-9.0

Sardines 75g (2.5 oz) 1.7-2.2

Fish (Mackerel, trout, bass) cooked 75g (2.5 oz) 1.4-1.7

Tuna, light, canned in water 75g (2.5 oz) 1.2

Seafood (shrimps, scallops, crab) cooked

Eggs, cooked 2 Large 1.2-1.8

Plants Source

Tofu, cooked ¾ cup (150 g) 2.4-8.0

Soybeans, nature, cooked ¾ cup (175 g) 6.5

Lentils, cooled ¾ cup (175 g) 4.1-4.9

Beans (white, navy, pinto, black,

roman/cranberry, adzuki) cooked ¾ cup (175 g) 2.6-4.9

Peas (chickpeas/garbanzo,

black-eyed, split) cooked ¾ cup (175 g) 1.9-3.5

Spinach, cooked ½ cup (125 mL) 2.0-3.4

Green peas, cooked ½ cup (125 mL) 2.2

Lima Beans, cooked ½ cup (125 mL) 2.2

Asparagus, raw 6 spears 2.1

Hearts of palm, canned ½ cup (125 mL) 2.0

Snow peas, cooked ½ cup (125 mL) 1.7

Apricots, dried ¼ cup (60 mL) 1.6

Beets, canned ½ cup (125 mL) 1.6

Kale, cooked ½ cup (125 mL) 1.3

Nuts (cashews, almonds, hazelnuts,

macadamia, pistachio nuts), without shell ¼ cup (60 mL) 1.3-2.2

Sesame Seeds, roasted 1 Tbsp (15 mL) 1.4

Hummus ¼ cup (60 mL) 1.5

Almond butter 2 Tbsp (30 mL) 1.1

Source: Dietitians of Canada (Oct 2016)

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