The Importance of Iron - Nemours Blog


The Importance of Iron

The Importance of Iron

What is iron?

Iron is a nutrient found in many proteins in the body. This includes hemoglobin, which is responsible for the transport of oxygen to tissues throughout the body for metabolism. Iron also supports brain and nerve development in infants and children. 

How much iron does my child need?

What foods contain iron?

  • Meat, poultry, pork, fish
  • Tofu
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Dried fruits (raisins, apricots)
  • Dark leafy green vegetables
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas
  • Peanuts, cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts

There are two forms of iron in the diet: heme and nonheme iron. Heme iron is in animal products including meat, pork, fish, and poultry and is the most easily absorbed form of iron for the body.

Nonheme iron is found in plant-based foods like grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. However, nonheme iron is not completely absorbed by the body. Its absorption may be enhanced when paired with high vitamin C foods including oranges, strawberries, bell peppers and kiwi. 

What is iron deficiency anemia?

Without enough iron, the body is not able to make enough hemoglobin or red blood cells, leading to anemia. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in children. Iron deficiency can result in developmental delays, impaired cognitive functioning, and reduced exercise capacity. 

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

  • Fatigue/extreme tiredness
  • Tired more quickly than normal with exercise
  • Pale skin
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Cravings for non-food items such as ice

Who is at risk for iron deficiency?

  • Infants Pre-term infants often require iron supplementation due to increased needs for rapid growth. Full term infants tend to have sufficient iron from their mothers’ iron stores, iron fortified formula, and iron fortified cereals. However, some full term infants may require iron supplementation starting at 4-6 months of age.
  • Toddlers Toddlers are at risk for iron deficiency if dietary iron intake is insufficient when switched to cow’s milk. Milk is not a good source of iron. Excessive milk drinking can limit the ability of toddlers to eat iron rich food. Limiting milk may help to increase intake of iron rich foods; it is recommended to limit milk to 16-24 ounces per day in toddlers.
  • Restrictive Diets (vegetarians, vegans) Vegetarians/vegans are at increased risk for iron deficiency due to limited intake of heme iron from animal products. It’s recommended for those following a restrictive diet to increase intake of nonheme iron. Depending on your child’s dietary restrictions an iron containing multivitamin may also be recommended. 
Megan O'Neill, RD, CSP, LDN

Megan O'Neill, RD, CSP, LDN, is a pediatric dietitian at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del.