Are you worried about your vegan or vegetarian child getting enough iron on a plant-based diet? I was too, especially after a routine test revealed my 9-month-old daughter was low in iron. However, kids can thrive on a plant-based diet and they can certainly get all the iron they need. It just takes a little planning. Here is everything you need to know about vegan iron for kids.
After I found out my daughter was low in iron, the doctor gave me a choice. I could try to increase her iron through foods, or give her a supplement. I decided to go the food route, and if that didn’t work, at her 1-year checkup we would start her on an iron supplement.
By using the information and tips below I made some changes to her diet, and since then, her iron levels have been great. However, if they weren’t, I would have jumped on that iron supplement.
Can my child get enough iron on a plant-based diet?
However, iron is an important nutrient to pay attention to. Kids have high iron needs as their bodies use it to grow and develop properly, for brain development, and to give them enough energy to learn, run and play. Because of this, children are at risk for iron-deficiency anemia.
Is iron from plants different than iron from animals?
Yes. Iron from plants (called non-heme iron) is harder for the body to absorb than the iron from animals (called heme iron). Because of this, the amount of iron a vegan or vegetarian child needs is higher than for meat eaters.
How much iron does my plant-based child need?
Here are the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Iron for all children:
|Birth-6 months||0.27 mg||0.27 mg|
|7-12 months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1-3 years||7 mg||7 mg|
|4-8 years||10 mg||10 mg|
|9-13 years||8 mg||8 mg|
|14-18 years||11 mg||15 mg|
However, since the body doesn’t absorb the iron from plants as well, vegans and vegetarians need more iron. How much more iron? Well the Recommended Dietary Allowance is 1.8 times higher.
However, the 1.8 figure has come into question in the past few years as this calculation was based on limited data using studies that were not typical of the way people eat. Today we know the body is able to increase or decrease iron absorption depending on a number of factors. Because of this, many experts, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, believe the 1.8 figure to be too high. Click here to read The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper.
So, instead of focusing on adding up iron milligrams, follow the tips below to make sure your plant-based child gets all the iron their growing body needs.
Vegan Iron for Kids: 5 Tips for Getting Enough
1. DON’T STRESS ABOUT THE EXACT AMOUNT OF IRON
The amount of iron your child eats is not the same as the amount of iron their body absorbs. Absorption depends on many factors including:
- the type of food eaten
- the amount of iron eaten at one time
- the other foods eaten at the same time
- the amount of iron stored in the body
Instead of worrying about the exact mg of iron your child is getting, focus on serving a variety of healthy foods throughout the day and following the remaining tips.
2. SERVE IRON-RICH FOODS AT MOST MEALS AND SNACKS
When iron is spread out in smaller doses the body absorbs more of it. Offer a variety of high-iron foods to your child during meal and snack times. Here are some suggestions:
- Iron-fortified cereal (baby cereal, cheerios, iron-fortified oatmeal)
- Whole Grains (oats, whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice)
- Beans, Peas & Legumes
- Leafy Greens
- Seeds, Nuts & Nut Butters
- Tofu, Tempeh & Soybeans
- Dried Fruit (apricot, raisins, prunes)
- Tomato Products (tomato sauce, tomato paste, sun dried tomatoes)
- Also, many fruits & vegetables have small amounts of iron in addition to other important nutrients and antioxidants.
Iron-fortified foods have a large amount of iron added to them. If you are worried about your child’s intake, include a daily serving for a boost of iron.
Babies between 7 to 12 months need a lot of iron. Because of this, many experts recommend pairing a iron-fortified baby cereal with other foods high in iron throughout the day.
After testing low in iron at 9-months, I realized I wasn’t feeding my daughter enough iron. I started giving her one serving of fortified cereal a day, along with other iron-rich whole foods, such as tofu cut into cubes out of the package, black beans from the can, and green peas from the freezer.
3. PAIR FOODS HIGH IN IRON WITH FOODS HIGH IN VITAMIN C
Many fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C. Some of the best sources include strawberries, citrus fruits, tropical fruits, tomatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, and 100% orange juice. Leafy greens and broccoli contain both iron and vitamin C.
Here are some kid-friendly iron and vitamin C combinations:
- Oatmeal with strawberries
- Tofu scramble with orange juice
- Bean burrito with salsa
- Hummus with red bell pepper sticks
4. COOK WITH A CAST IRON SKILLET
Cooking with a cast iron skillet increases the amount of iron in food.
As the food is being cooked, some of the iron from the pan is transferred into the food. For an even greater iron boost try:
- Cooking wet or acidic foods like pasta sauce and applesauce. These soak up more iron than dry, non-acidic foods like pancakes and veggie burgers
- Mixing the contents of the pan frequently
- Cooking the food for a longer amount of time
- Using a newer pan
If you are buying a new cast iron skillet, make sure it comes seasoned so you don’t have to do that yourself. I adore my Le Creuset Skillet but people love the Lodge Cast Iron Skillet and it is much more affordable.
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5. WATCH THE CALCIUM INTAKE
Calcium is an essential mineral your child needs to develop strong bones. It’s vital your child gets enough. However, excessive amounts of calcium may inhibit your child’s body from absorbing iron.
If your child is taking a calcium supplement or drinking more than 16 ounces a day of milk or non-dairy milk, talk to your pediatrician. This may be getting in the way of their body getting the iron they need.
I hope you feel confident that your vegan or vegetarian child can get all the iron they need to thrive on a plant-based diet.
If you are struggling trying to get your child to eat, click here to read my post on The Division of Responsibility
For more information on plant-based nutrition and feeding your child, subscribe to my newsletter and check out these articles:
- Vegan Protein For Kids: Are They Getting Enough?
- 50 Vegan Snacks For Kids: Healthy, Easy & Delicious
- Cook With Kids: The Top 10 Reasons To Start Now
So what do you think about vegan iron for kids? What are your child’s favorite iron-rich foods? I’d love to hear from you!