How to address iron deficiency in kids and teens?

Written by Divya Gandhi
Published: July 5, 2022
Founder/Owner/Dietitian at Diet and Cure Clinic with 10 Years of experience. Double Diploma from VLCC & IGNOU, BBA from IP University

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Vitamins and minerals form a vital part of our diets. Our bodies need them to function efficiently. Iron is a mineral that aids in several functions of our body. Adults and children both need adequate iron for good health. But iron for kids is a must, as it assists the growth and development process in kids. Iron deficiency in children can adversely affect their growth and development. 

Iron deficiency in children and teens is a fairly common issue. At least two out of ten kids suffer from not having enough iron in their diet. Iron deficiency in children can range from mild effects to a more severe level causing iron deficiency anemia. It is a condition that results in a reduced amount of red blood cells being produced in the body. The number of these cells goes below the normal amount of red blood cells that your child must have at a certain age.


An adequate amount of iron is required in the body for combating iron deficiency in children, and even adults. This is because iron has an important role in the functioning of our system. Out of numerous other roles, here are few significant roles of iron in the body: 

  • Producing hemoglobin: Iron helps produce hemoglobin in the body. Hemoglobin is a complex protein, present in the red blood cells, that carries oxygen from lungs to all parts of the body. It helps the muscles store oxygen, which the muscles can use later. 
  • Producing Myoglobin: All cells in our body require oxygen in order to function. Myoglobin is a protein found in the muscles attached to your bones and tendons, which comprise your skeletal muscles. It is present in your heart muscles too. The main function of myoglobin is to supply oxygen to the cells in our muscles, these muscle cells are known as myocytes. Iron forms an integral part in the production of myoglobin. 
  • Cell Division process: Iron is vital for the process of mitosis. Mitosis is the process that helps a cell replicate its chromosomes and then segregate them to produce two identical nuclei for cell division. Mitosis is an important function as it provides new cells for growth and helps replace the worn-out cells, like skin cells.
  • Enzymes creation: There are various iron-dependent enzymes in the body that require iron for their production. One of the most important of them is the energy-yielding metabolic enzyme responsible for converting nutrients into energy. The food that we consume is converted into energy with the help of iron. So iron deficiency in children can cause them to stay low on energy. Iron for kids makes for a key resource for high energy.
  • Immune system functioning: Iron is necessary for the proliferation and maturation of immune cells that are associated with our body’s response to infection. So iron for kids is a key element to maintain a healthy immune system.

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What Causes Iron Deficiency In Children?

The need for iron increases in children and teenagers in their growing years. Factors contributing to iron deficiency in children possibly include: 

  • Premature childbirth. 
  • Low weight at birth.
  • Not introducing solids in a child’s diet beyond six months of breastfeeding.
  • Feeding low-iron milk like cow or goat’s milk and soymilk before 2 years of age to the kid.
  • Negligible or no intake of iron-rich foods by children or teens.
  • Inability to absorb adequate amounts of iron from food.
  • Heightened activity due to playing around or sports or exercise increases the need for iron in children and teens.
  • Dieting at an early age when the body needs essential nutrients.
  • Blood loss due to injuries or other reasons in children.
  • Menstruation in teenage girls also causes iron loss.
  • Some gastrointestinal tract disorders can cause loss of iron for kids too.

Iron Deficiency In Children Symptoms

  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale skin
  • Increased sweating
  • Breathlessness
  • Repetitive infections
  • A tendency or craving to eat substances like dirt, clay, ashes or ice.
  • A swollen or sore tongue
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Not growing at the expected rate

What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia may cause delayed growth and development in your child. It refers to a condition in which the amount of red blood cells (RBC) production is reduced to below normal. The average RBC count in children between the age of 1-18 years ranges between 4.0-5.5 million cells per microliter. Anemic children produce RBC lesser than this count. RBCs are carriers of hemoglobin, a protein responsible for moving oxygen all around the body and cells. Iron helps produce hemoglobin. A decreased RBC count in your child’s body would adversely affect the health of your child.

Iron deficiency anemia may cause your child to experience mild weakness, pale or yellow skin, irritability, feeling tired easily or feeling weak, nails and eyelid lining may appear less pink than usual. However, if the anemia is severe the child may have shortness of breath, headaches, swollen hands and feet, rapid heart rate, dizziness, restless leg syndrome. 

Why Are Girls More Affected By Iron Deficiency Anemia Than Boys?

While boys may have iron deficiency due to rapid growth that is linked with puberty, teenage girls experience iron deficiency anemia more often than boys. A simple reason for that difference is that their bodies are unable to store as much iron as boys, and further the loss of blood through menstruation makes it worse for them when they hit puberty. Blood loss leading to loss of iron in the body may make them anemic. 

What Can Parents Do To Prevent Iron Deficiency In Children?

A healthy body is able to absorb approximately 18% of the available iron from a non-vegetarian diet and about 10% from a vegetarian diet.

There are a myriad of healthy options available around us to fulfill the need of an optimum iron intake in children and teens. Iron deficiency in children can be prevented by taking some effective steps to improve the diet of your children.

1. Iron Rich Diet

Consuming iron-rich foods can considerably increase the intake of iron in children. 

Food sources: Meat such as pork, lamb, beef, liver and other organ meats. Poultry such as chicken, duck, turkey. Seafood such as fish, shellfish, oysters.
Meat alternatives such as lentils, chickpeas, dried beans, eggs, nuts. Fruits and veggies like Apples, bananas, pomegranate, spinach, peas. Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas. Dry fruits like raisins and apricots.

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron. Encouraging your child to consume a more vitamin C enriched diet will help in the absorption of iron and to prevent iron deficiency in children.

Food sources: Lemons, berries, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, chilli peppers, capsicum.

3. Be Careful In Menstruation Days

Teenage girls require more iron intake during their menstruation days, as there is a loss of iron through blood loss in those days. Providing teenage girls more foods that are rich in iron in this period is crucial to balance the iron intake in their body and avoid any iron deficiency symptoms in children.

4. Encourage Your Choosy Kid

Kids who are picky in their food choices and tend to stick to certain foods cut down their palette or array of healthy food that constitutes a healthy diet full of essential vitamins and minerals. Parents could encourage their kid to increase their iron intake by making some innovative, tasteful drinks or dishes that contain iron-rich elements. Since these picky kids would only eat or drink things that don’t appease their tongues, so this method could help ensure an increased iron intake.

The daily eating habits of your children are a key factor to maintaining their health. As kids grow up they become more active and engrossed in energy consuming routines and activities. The heightened need for iron in their body demands attention and an improvised diet chart. Children and teenagers tend to avoid healthy food options and get more attracted to unhealthy junk foods and sugary drinks that only hamper their health. 

Parents do everything to keep their kids healthy. All they need is the right guidance and resources to do the same. Iron for kids is a key mineral that ensures healthy growth and development in children and teenagers. So stack up your home with the best and healthiest options that are good sources of iron and leave no space for iron deficiency in children.

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The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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