We all need iron for brain function, energy and growth (in children) and to fight infections. Iron carries oxygen in the blood to cells around the body including the brain. Our immune system also depends on iron to work properly.
Pregnant women have an increased amount of blood and therefore need more iron to carry extra oxygen.
Infants have stores of iron from the pregnancy, however these stores run out after about six months. After this infants need to get iron from their diet. Breastmilk alone does not provide enough iron after about six months, so iron containing foods need to be introduced.
Infants need this good source of dietary iron from about six months of age in order to prevent iron deficiency.
Children also need iron for learning and brain development. Adequate iron allows children to concentrate and have enough energy to learn. It also prevents illness which will affect learning.
Not all iron is the same as far as our bodies are concerned. More of the iron in animal foods such as meat and chicken is absorbed than the iron in plant foods such as legumes and grain foods such as breads and cereals. However there are ways of increasing the amount of iron that is absorbed from plant foods. Firstly if we eat foods containing vitamin C at the same meal as the plant foods, then more iron is absorbed. Foods that are high in vitamin C include fruits such as oranges, mandarins, kiwifruit, berries and vegetables such as capsicum, tomato, broccoli and potato.
So eating a small amount of these foods at the same meal as grain foods and legumes will increase the amount of iron that is absorbed.
Secondly, meat, chicken and fish increase the amount of iron that is absorbed from plant foods when they are eaten at the same meal. Other promoters of iron absorption from plant foods are citric acid, malic acid and tartaric acid which are found in fruit.
More iron is absorbed when our body’s iron stores are low – how clever our bodies are!
There are also compounds in foods that can decrease the amount of iron that is absorbed from plant foods. These include:
phytate – this compound is found in a range of foods particularly whole grain (unrefined) cereal foods, legumes and nuts. Babies would not be eating large amounts of phytate as their intake of all foods is small and most of the cereals they eat are refined or partly refined.
Tannin – this is found in tea, coffee and wine. So it is not a good idea to offer infants these drinks!
Good sources of iron for babies
Commercial infant cereals and breakfast cereals that have iron added during the processing. Look for iron in the ingredients list on the package
Red meats such as beef and lamb
Legumes such as kidney beans, chick peas, lentils
Green leafy vegetables
Wholemeal grain foods such as wholemeal bread, oats
For ideas on how to prepare meat for infants and young children see www.themainmeal.com.au and go to red meat information centre
Accredited Practising Dietitian
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