March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
What's the nutrient most lacking in your teen's diet? While you might guess calcium, it could be iron. Despite the abundance of iron in the United States food supply through natural, enriched and fortified food sources, teens may be consuming less of this mineral than their developing bodies require. While it can happen to boys, adolescent girls are commonly considered at risk for iron deficiency — and girls from food-insecure households are at greatest risk.
As teens grow, their muscle mass increases and blood volume expands, increasing their need for iron. Girls also need to replace iron stores lost during menstruation. Vegetarian or vegan teens can be at greater risk of iron deficiency.
What Iron Does in the Body
Iron plays an important role in many diverse functions because it helps the blood carry oxygen to the lungs, muscles and all parts of our bodies. Because of this important role, it also is involved in brain function and helps keep our immune system strong.
A deficiency of iron can result in a number of symptoms that can be evaluated by your child's pediatrician. One common sign is fatigue. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath; frequent colds and infections; poor concentration at school; pale skin; lightheadedness; rapid heart rate; headaches; and thin, brittle and concave-shaped nails. Deficient teen athletes may have lackluster training sessions and fatigue during workouts.
How to Get More Iron
Increasing iron-rich foods in your teen's diet can be done at any time through meals that include:
- lean meats
- iron-enriched or iron-fortified grains such as cereals, breads, pasta and rice
- dried fruits such as apricots, raisins and prunes
- leafy green vegetables such as spinach and cooked kale
- dried beans, peas and lentils
Animal sources of iron (which contain heme iron) are best absorbed, while plant sources (non-heme iron) can be served with a vitamin C source to help increase its absorption. For example, serve iron-fortified cereals with grapefruit, and cook dried beans with tomatoes in a chili. Cooking food in a cast iron pan also can increase iron content.
Some foods and beverages may cause the body to absorb less iron when eaten close together. A registered dietitian nutritionist can develop an eating plan that's right for your teen and includes good sources of iron.
Taking an iron supplement to correct an iron deficiency or anemia should be done only under a physician's supervision and monitored with follow-up blood tests, since high doses of iron can be harmful.