An Australia-wide diet survey of small children, the first of its kind, has found that virtually all infants and a quarter of toddlers aren’t getting enough iron, according to official guidelines.
The survey, conducted by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), looked at the diet of Australian children aged six months to two years.
The research was based on interviews with 1100 parents “who documented their children’s diets”.
The report findings were largely positive: The majority of children covered by the survey “are getting the right amount of most nutrients”.
But the researchers said “there was one glaring problem”.
Study co-author Dr Merryn Netting, a research fellow at SAHMRI’s Child Nutrition Research Centre, said: “We found 90 per cent of infants 6-12 months old were consuming far less iron per day than the recommended amount.
“Not getting enough iron is a concern because we know iron deficiency negatively impacts overall development. It can also cause tiredness, loss of appetite as well as poor growth and lead to anaemia, a condition that reduces oxygen in the body.”
Dr Netting told The New Daily that “we do see a lot of children with iron deficiency anaemia in clinical practice if they haven’t got their early feeding right”.
She said the babies might present as “pale and lethargic or irritable” and that paediatricians would then screen for deficiency in the iron stored in the body.
But are the guidelines correct?
Dr Netting said that babies in their first six months require a low dose of 0.2mg of iron in their diet. This is because they are born with iron stored in their bodies.
This store begins to run low at six months, when the baby is introduced to solids (but not before four months).
“It doesn’t matter what food you start your child on, as long as it’s iron-rich,” she said.
Guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend infants consume 7mg of iron daily.
The researchers say that to achieve this amount of iron, infants need to eat the equivalent of 300 grams of beef or 400 grams of fortified cereal every day – which is a lot of food for a little person: 300 grams of beef is a night out for adults.
Dr Netting agreed, but said that the daily requirement tended to be met by eating a variety of foods, including some meat, green vegetables, iron-fortified cereals and breast milk or milk formula.
However, Dr Netting said it was “possible the recommended iron intake has been set higher than needed and should be reviewed”.
She said this couldn’t be confirmed “without doing further studies with a larger cohort of infants”.
“We have no data on blood iron levels or anaemia in this group, and we urgently need it. If iron levels are low, we may need to consider giving infants iron supplements.”
Toddlers have a taste for salt
The study also found that about a third of toddlers are consuming too much salt, a consequence of the Australian diet containing too many highly processed foods.
Dr Netting said: “Too much salt is typically down to eating an excess of processed foods. Children will develop a taste for salty foods that are often unhealthy. This can contribute to poor eating habits down the road, as well as high blood pressure.”
Meanwhile, breast feeding rates “surpassed expectations”.
The report found that 75 per cent of mothers were breastfeeding at six months and 50 per cent at 12 months.
“It’s very pleasing to see that so many mothers are opting for breastmilk with all the added nutrients it provides, rather than reaching for baby formula,” Dr Netting said.