Is your child unusually tired? Irritable? Lacking in focus at school?
Is he sadder or more anxious than usual? Slow to gain weight or experiencing a smaller appetite than normal?
You could put these down to late nights, a bad week, or just a stubborn personality. Then again, these are all symptoms of low iron.
There’s a reason so many breakfast cereals for kids have iron added to them. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. In fact, it’s estimated that two billion people on the planet are anaemic, which is the most severe form of iron deficiency. Because of the established link between iron and IQ, it’s estimated that if this was reversed, the IQ on Earth would increase by an average of 13 points.
It’s essential that kids get enough iron, particularly during times of rapid growth such as adolescence.
Iron is a central part of haemoglobin, which is a protein in blood that transports oxygen to every cell in your brain and body, so that they can create energy. It is also central to myoglobin, the iron-based protein in your muscles that stores oxygen for when you need a burst of energy.
Not only that, it turns out that iron is a key ingredient in the production of the molecules most responsible for mood, focus, and pleasure – dopamine and serotonin. And brains with less iron also have less myelin. Myelin is the fatty layer that covers brain cells, and it’s responsible for ultrafast signal conduction.
Imagine what life is like for a child without enough iron.
You can’t access enough energy for movement or play, and your body feels permanently fatigued. You can’t concentrate, your thinking is fuzzy, and you get irritable and anxious. Joy seems out of reach, and life feels pretty miserable.
Where to find iron
The richest source of iron is red meat but other meat and seafood also contain iron. Iron from meat, known as heme iron, is the form our body finds easiest to absorb.
However, most of our daily iron comes from non-meat sources: eggs, green leafy vegetables and wholegrains, enriched cereals, dried fruit such as apricots and raisins, and legumes (dried/canned peas, beans, and lentils). Dark chocolate is also a good source, as are certain nuts and seeds, including pumpkin seeds.
Iron from plant sources is called non-heme iron. The problem is, plants like to hold on to their iron, and don’t release it easily. One solution is adding a source of vitamin C to your meals, as this increases the amount of iron you absorb from plant foods.
A squeeze of lemon juice or some broccoli in the stir-fry won’t be enough. You’ll need about 50mg vitamin C, or that found in a kiwi fruit, orange, 100g strawberries, or half a red capsicum. And having just 50g meat with plant foods will also increase non-heme iron absorption.
For an after-school drink, you can’t beat a glass of Milo, which provides close to 50 per cent of a young child’s iron requirement.