Think iron is only important for babies or those menstruating? Actually, all adolescents have higher iron needs than kids and adults. Why is it important, and how can you ensure your adolescent is getting enough? 

Iron’s role in the developing body

One of iron’s main function is to help transfer oxygen around the body on red blood cells. When iron levels are very low it can affect oxygen travel, resulting in iron-deficiency anemia. Symptoms of low iron levels can look like fatigue, depression, impaired cognitive function & development, restless leg syndrome, paleness, dizziness, difficulty breathing or fast heartbeat, headaches, being cold, and increased risk of infections.

Should tweens & teens take an iron supplement?

Unless there is specifically a deficiency (as measured by a blood test, and diagnosed by a medical professional), supplements should not be taken, because too much iron can lead to iron overdose; high levels are toxic to many cells in the body. Additionally, supplementation can produce nausea, headaches, and other symptoms. So unless otherwise advised, it’s best to get your iron from food. 

Iron requirements for tween, teens & athletes

Iron needs are high at this stage, as adolescents are growing and need more oxygen in their muscles and around their body; they generally have higher needs for many nutrients at this age. Because girls are menstruating and losing blood (and so, iron), their needs are higher (and remain higher until menopause)

For males, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 8 mg/day from 9-13, and 11 mg/day for 14-18-year-olds (RDA drops to 8 mg/day for adulthood).

For females, the RDA is 8 mg/day from 9-13 (once they start menstruating that increases to 13.5 mg/day), and 15 mg/day for 14-18-year-olds (that goes up to 18 mg/day over 19 until menopause).

Athletes, especially endurance athletes, likely need more iron, as blood breaks down faster and iron is lost through sweat, urine, skin, and the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract- (this is not noticeable; if you are seeing blood in urine or stool contact your doctor).

Food sources of iron

Iron is in both animal and plant-based foods. Animal sources of iron (called heme iron) are probably the better known iron sources. Organ meats, red meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are all sources of iron that are easily digested and used in the body.

Iron is also found in plant food (non-heme iron). These sources have their iron more protected, and need some help being used in the body. (This is called its “bioavailability”- how easily available it is in the body). Grains (like wheat, rice, and corn) are fortified with this form of iron, so even though cereal boxes may claim to provide 100% of our daily needs, this isn’t totally accurate, as it’s not fully absorbed into the body. There is very low risk of overdosing on iron from food (usually only if someone has a chronic illness that collects iron). 

Bioavailability can be increased by pairing these non-heme iron foods with vitamin C foods (see chart below).

Coffee & tea and milk inhibit (prevent) iron uptake, so if you are taking an iron supplement, don’t take it with these.

Non-food Sources of Iron

There are two other ways to increase iron intake that aren’t food:

  1. preparing food in cast-iron dishes
  2. Using a Lucky Iron Fish- which is essentially a block of iron in the shape of a fish that you can throw into dishes to increase the amount of iron in it.

Both of these options allow food- especially liquids- to absorb and provide some extra iron. 

Iron & menstruation

While iron is lost during menstruation, supplementing iron during that time doesn’t seem to be helpful in preventing or addressing low levels. It’s more important to ensure adequate levels at all times (through diet or supplementation if necessary) to prevent low iron levels.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that iron intake affects the flow or heaviness of one’s period- that has more to do with estrogen levels. While flow and heaviness don’t seem to be connected or affected by diet, menstruation is connected to one’s overall nutritional levels; when eating a diet too low in calories or fat, people will often lose their period as their caloric needs aren’t being met, and the body conserves needed energy. If your adolescent’s cycle has not started by around age 14 or 15, or it has stopped, this may be a sign of something concerning, and should be discussed with a medical professional. A heavy period can also be a sign of concern, and should also be discussed with a medical professional.