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How Much Iron Do Youngsters Need?
Q: My daughter is 16 months old. How much iron does she need? Do children and adults need the same amount?
A: The amount of iron that a child requires each day is actually not much less than what an adult needs. Iron is important because it helps make hemoglobin which is the major part of red blood cells. Without enough iron, children can become anemic over time, meaning that the number and size of their red blood cells decrease. There are usually no symptoms when a child has mild anemia. However, if it gets worse, symptoms can include paleness, fatigue, poor appetite, and low exercise tolerance.
Most people get the iron they need from their food. Red meats are a particularly good source of iron, especially liver and veal. Other sources of iron include soybeans and navy beans, green leafy vegetables, cream of wheat, and fortified cereals. Prunes, molasses, and avocado also have reasonable amounts of iron. Clams and oysters have very large amounts of iron, though many children don't tolerate the texture of these foods. It's important to know that the iron in meat and fish is absorbed by the body more effectively than iron in vegetables and beans. It's also helpful to eat foods containing vitamin C (like orange juice) at the same time that you are eating foods with iron. The vitamin C helps the intestine absorb more of the iron.
For adult men the recommended daily intake of iron is about 10 milligrams (mg), and for women it's 15 mg. In children, the intake varies with age. The more rapidly children are growing , the more iron they need. Thus, young children ages 6 to 36 months have high iron requirements. The recommended daily intake for this age group is 10 mg per day. Adolescents, ages 11 to 18, also have large iron requirements: 12 mg a day for boys and 15 mg a day for girls.
Ideally, the best way to get in the extra iron is to change the diet to include more iron-rich foods. Be sure to read the nutritional information on all the foods included in your child's diet to find out how much iron she's getting. If you feel your child isn't getting the proper amount of iron (considering her intake over the course of a couple of weeks, not just one day), discuss this with your child's doctor to se if she recommends an iron supplement.
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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.