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Iron in the Diet

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KEY POINTS

  • Iron is a mineral that is important to all cells in the body.
  • Iron is found in many kinds of foods. The best way to get enough iron is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • If your child gets enough iron in his diet, taking a supplement may be harmful. Too much iron can poison a child. Ask your healthcare provider before giving your child an iron supplement.

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What is iron?

Iron is a mineral that is important to all cells in your child's body. Blood cells need iron to bring oxygen to the cells. Your child can get iron deficiency anemia if he doesn’t get enough iron. Children who have iron deficiency anemia are often tired and don’t have much energy.

Iron deficiency anemia may result from:

  • Not getting enough iron from the diet
  • Losing a lot of blood

How much iron does my child need?

How much iron your child needs depends on age and whether your child is male or female:


GROUP                    MILLIGRAMS (mg) IRON PER DAY
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Children 7 to 12 months old       11 mg
Children 1 to 3 years old          7 mg
Children 4 to 8 years old         10 mg
Children 9 to 13 years old         8 mg
Females 14 to 18 years old        15 mg
Males 14 to 18 years old          11 mg
Males over 18 years old            8 mg
Females 19 to 50 years old        18 mg
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How can my child eat the right amount of iron?

Iron is found in many kinds of foods. The best way to get enough iron is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. There are 2 types of iron:

  • Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and fish. Heme foods that are very high in iron, such as beef and chicken liver, are also very high in cholesterol. It’s best to eat these foods in limited amounts.
  • Nonheme iron is found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, eggs, dairy products, and iron-enriched foods.

It’s harder for the body to absorb iron from plants than from meat, poultry, and fish. Your child should eat foods that contain vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, and tomatoes, when he eats plant foods that have iron. Eating these foods together helps the body to absorb the iron better. Eating heme iron at the same time as nonheme iron also helps the body absorb the iron better. This is very important if:

  • Your child has a condition that makes her lose iron (for example, girls who have heavy menstrual periods).
  • Your child has a condition that keeps the body from absorbing iron well, such as celiac disease.

Some foods, supplements, and medicines can make it harder for your child’s body to absorb iron. It is best to eat iron at a different time than when your child has:

  • Milk and other dairy products
  • Foods with a lot of fiber
  • Coffee, tea, and carbonated drinks (even decaffeinated)
  • Calcium supplements
  • Antacids

Does my child need an iron supplement?

If your child gets enough iron in his diet, he doesn't need a supplement. Taking supplements your child doesn’t need may be harmful. Too much iron can poison a child.

If your child has anemia, your healthcare provider may suggest an iron supplement. Iron pills can have side effects such as cramps, nausea, and constipation. Taking the iron at mealtimes can help prevent stomach upset. To help prevent constipation, make sure your child drinks enough fluid and has enough fiber in his diet.

If you are thinking of giving your child a supplement that contains iron, ask your healthcare provider about it first.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-04-07
Last reviewed: 2015-03-25
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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