Iron (Fe) is an element essential to the molecular processes of the human body. Some of its functions include production of red blood cells, transport of oxygen into and carbon dioxide out of the body, conversion of blood sugar to energy, production of enzymes, and certain functions of the immune system. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency disorder in the world, affecting approximately 2 billion people in developing and developed countries worldwide due to under-nutrition.
The most urgent need for iron as a nutrient exists in the time period throughout pregnancy and the first 2 years of life, but according to the World Health Organization, over 750 million pre-school children worldwide suffer from anaemia, a condition that develops as a result of iron deficiency. Symptoms of anaemia include persistent fatigue, dizziness, lowered immunity, irritability, pica (cravings for clay, chalk, dirt, or sand as food), and poor oral intake. Untreated iron deficiency and anaemia during early childhood can potentially cause cognitive and metabolic damage.
Oral iron supplements such as ferrous sulfate have become the touchstone of treatment for iron deficiency and anaemia. However, a recent meta-analysis of close to 10,000 scientific studies of the effects of iron supplements on health of children aged 4 months – 2 years shows mixed results. Among the observed beneficial effects of iron supplements are a decreased risk of anaemia and iron deficiency, increased haemoglobin (an iron-binding molecule necessary for transport of oxygen), and increased ferritin (a molecule that stores iron in the body). However, the studies also showed that children who took iron for at least 3 months daily were on average shorter and lighter than children who did not. It is possible, although not proven definitively, that iron supplements stunt childhood growth by inducing vomiting and reducing appetite and oral intake. The occurance of fever was also found to be more frequent in iron supplement takers. Finally, although no specific consequences were shown within the cognitive and psychological development of children taking daily iron, this issue remains to be examined in more detail.
The best method for avoiding iron deficiency in children remains the use of prevention strategies such as consumption of an adequate diet. Up to early adolescence, children require around 7 – 11 mg of iron (Fe) per day. Even though it is still very contentious, some doctors suggest that infants and children up to 5 years old should generally avoid milk from cows or goats, and substitute soy milk products with iron-enriched baby formula and cereal. Older children will benefit from foods like beans, dark green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, red meat, chicken, and fish. Junk foods with low nutrient value must be avoided. Vitamin C is also an excellent aid for iron absorption. Although orange juice is not recommended for infants under 1, tolerable foods with high vitamin C content include melon, strawberries, apricots, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes.
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Pasricha, S-R. et al. “Effect of daily iron supplementation on health in children aged 4—23 months: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.” The Lancet: Global Health 1(2):e77-e86. August 2013.
“Iron deficiency in children: Prevention tips for parents.” Mayo Clinic. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/iron-deficiency/MY01654. Last accessed: August 2013.
Written by Julia Yusupova