Is your tween/teen iron deficient?

Did you know that a tween girl’s iron needs almost double once she starts having her period?

Those monthly menstrual blood losses mean that she’ll need to replace the iron she is now regularly losing. People at highest risk for iron deficiency anemia include:   Children, Teens, Women of reproductive age. 

Iron is a critical nutrient for many reasons, one of which is that it’s part of the hemoglobin in blood which carries oxygen to all of our cells. When iron is in short supply, less oxygen is available for energy production which can lead to fatigue, among other symptoms.   

Truth be told, it can sometimes be tricky to figure out whether you’re just dealing with the ups and downs of tween/teen life or an actual nutrient deficiency. But if your tween/teen is indeed suffering from iron deficiency anemia, taking steps toward fixing it will make an enormous difference in her energy levels and overall well-being.

If you’ve noticed that your tween or teen girl is experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to have her iron levels checked:   

  • Fatigue 

  • Headaches 

  • Sensitivity to cold 

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Irritability Dizziness 

  • Inability to focus 

  • Feeling weak 

  • Pale

If you’re concerned, talk to your pediatrician and check in with your tween/teen about whether she is regularly eating enough iron-rich foods in her diet.

Here is a little background on dietary iron that can help you determine whether your tween/teen is getting enough.

First, there are two types of iron. The first, heme iron is the type found in animal foods. Rich sources include:   Meat Poultry Fish   Shellfish   Heme iron is absorbed more easily by the body than non-heme iron, which is the type found in plant foods. Good sources of non-heme iron include:   

  • Beans and lentils 

  • Dark leafy greens 

  • Nuts & seeds Dried fruits 

  • Fortified cereals 

  • Whole grains 

  • Soy   

Chat with your tween/teen about which iron-rich foods she prefers and how you can work together to build more of them into her meals and snacks.   

Iron absorption is another important consideration. Most plant foods contain phytates, which can lower our absorption of the iron found in these foods. A good way to help improve your tween/teen girl’s (or anyone’s for that matter!) iron status is to encourage her to eat foods that are high in vitamin C along with iron-rich foods, because vitamin C counteracts the effects of phytates and helps the body better absorb iron, as long as food sources of both are eaten together in the same meal or snack.

Luckily, foods that are high in vitamin C often pair really well with iron-rich foods.   Here are some ideas for pairings: 

  • Black beans (iron) & salsa (vitamin C) 

  • Sautéed spinach (iron) with tomatoes (vitamin C) 

  • Tofu (iron) with broccoli (vitamin C) 

  • Dark chocolate (iron) with strawberries (vitamin C) 

  • Lentils (iron) with bell peppers (vitamin C) 

  • Chia seed pudding (iron) with raspberries (vitamin C)    

Another great way to increase dietary iron absorption is to cook foods in cast iron pots and pans. The more acidic the food you’re cooking (such as tomatoes), and the higher the cooking temperature, the more iron leaches out of the pan and into the food, increasing the iron content of the meal.   

Sometimes iron needs can’t be met through food sources alone. In these cases, iron supplements can help. Before starting your tween/teen on any supplement, be sure to always talk to your pediatrician or registered dietitian first to determine the best path forward.   

Cheers to your good health! 

Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN