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Q: My pediatrician said my one-and-a-half-year-old's blood test showed a low iron count. My daughter doesn't like to eat the meat products that he suggested. I don't like giving her supplements. Are there any other foods (fruits, veggies, etc.) that I can get her to eat to help with this?
A: While in general, meats have the highest content of iron per ounce, there are many other foods that contain iron in smaller quantities, which you can feed to your child. Unfortunately, there really aren't any fruits that contain significant amounts of iron other than raisins and prunes. Vegetables that are reasonable sources of iron are leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and collard greens. Another vegetable with high iron content is beans (such as navy beans, soybeans, and black-eyed peas). Avocados also have iron.
You should definitely look beyond the fruit and vegetable group to identify foods that you can give your child. Certain grain products have very high levels of iron, even higher than some meats. Cream of wheat, for example, has more iron in a serving than beef liver does! Brewer's yeast and molasses both have very high levels of iron, and can be used in preparing other foods. Enriched rice and oatmeal also can have substantial amounts of iron.
In order to get the best mileage out of any iron-rich foods you are giving, it is helpful to also give a food that contains Vitamin C along with the iron. Vitamin C helps the intestine to absorb the iron more effectively. If the iron doesn't get absorbed, it just ends up going out in the stool. Some foods are known to interfere with the absorption of iron from the intestines, and it is helpful to not give these foods at the same time if you want to maximize the amount of iron that's absorbed from the meal. Milk in particular is known to interfere with iron absorption. This doesn't mean to stop giving your child milk -- just don't give the milk at the same time as an iron-rich meal.
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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.