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Ages & Stages

Pump Up the Diet with Iron

A teenager’s blood volume expands to keep up with the body’s increasing need for oxygen, which is carried by iron-rich hemoglobin in red blood cells.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)

The RDA of iron for adolescent girls is 15 mg a day, and some experts recommend up to 25 mg for girls who are heavily involved in athletics. The RDA for teenaged boys is 12 mg of iron a day. Male and female athletes who run a lot have excess iron needs.

Lack of iron means lower levels of hemoglobin leading to anemia, tiredness, weakness, increased susceptibility to infection, and other symptoms. Most people know that iron is important in adolescent girls’ diets to make up for menstrual blood loss. Our bodies retrieve iron from old blood cells. Therefore, boys and men don’t need to consume as much iron as girls and women, who lose iron during their menstrual period. However, although boys generally have higher hemoglobin levels than girls, boys can develop iron deficiency; they need plenty of iron in the diet. A boy or girl may be iron deficient without actually being anemic. Iron is also critical for optimal brain functioning.

Sources of Iron

There are 2 different types of dietary iron.

  • Heme iron is found in foods from animals, such as meat, fish and shellfish, and poultry.
  • Nonheme iron comes from plants; good sources are dark-green leafy vegetables, soy products, and dried fruits.

Iron-fortified breads and cereals are also important sources of the mineral. Iron cooking pots may make a small contribution to iron intake.

Our bodies absorb only between 5% and 20% of the iron we eat, depending on the composition of the meal. With heme iron, about 20% is absorbed no matter how it’s prepared and served. Nonheme iron is less easily absorbed, but we can increase the absorption rate by eating sources of nonheme iron—such as legumes and fortified breads and grains—together with foods that contain some heme iron, or foods rich in vitamin C. These include citrus, fruits and vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes. Meat contains a substance that is also known to promote nonheme iron absorption, although it has not yet been isolated and identified. Combining a small amount of meat, therefore, with iron-rich legumes or beans can boost the amount of iron that is absorbed.

Tannins, phytates, and calcium in foods such as tea, bran, and milk, respectively, can hinder the absorption of nonheme iron eaten at the same meal by as much as 50%. If your child has been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, or if you’re otherwise concerned about her iron intake, have her drink tea and milk only at snack times. At mealtimes, serve fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C or a glass of citrus juice to help her absorb more iron.

Lean meat, poultry, and fish are good sources of iron. Other sources include soy products such as tofu, soy milk, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and white beans. If you cook an acidic food, such as tomato sauce or chili, in a cast-iron pot, some of the iron in the pot is leached out into the food and can supply a little dietary iron; however, some other vitamins may be lost.

Last Updated
Nutrition: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Copyright © American Academy of Pediatrics 2011)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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