Every stage of your child’s life has different joys, and different challenges. One minute you are hoping they will stay asleep just a little bit longer – the next you are pleased to get them up before lunch!
The teenage years are full of change as your children’s minds and bodies prepare for adulthood. Both boys and girls experience another growth spurt, whilst girls also have to deal with starting their periods. An increasing awareness of their body image can lead to anxiety and dieting or increased exercise. All of this growth and change needs iron –and enough to allow them to study and learn effectively as well. If your son or daughter is low in iron (iron deficient), this can lead to a condition known as iron deficiency anaemia, where the number of healthy red blood cells in your son or daughter’s body is reduced.1
To learn more about the vital role iron plays in our bodies see “Why is iron so important for your health”.
Girls Need the Most Iron
Iron deficiency is more common in girls than boys simply because their need for iron is greater.2 As their bodies are growing and need more iron, girls also start losing iron on a regular basis with the start of their periods. After his growth spurt a boy is able to begin to recover his iron stores, but girls do not get the chance.3 The amount of blood lost during a period varies between girls, and is the main factor in the amount of iron your daughter needs.4
As their bodies change teenagers develop an increasing awareness of body image. At the same time they are beginning to have more control over their diet and the amount of exercise they do. Dieting at this time of increased need for iron can have a big impact on their iron stores – girls who have tried to lose weight in the last year are 3 times more likely to be anaemic than those who haven’t.4
Iron and Growing Boys
You might think you don’t need to worry about your teenage son as he empties the fridge, but what he is eating is important. Although he will not start losing iron through periods, he does need to provide fuel for a bigger change in size than a teenage girl. Growth spurts are not just about the rate at which your son’s clothes no longer fit, but also about increasing the amount of blood flowing around their body.5 To make healthy red blood cells and haemoglobin they need iron.1 Teenage boys increase the amount of haemoglobin (that carries oxygen) in their bodies from 130 g/L to 141 g/L, whilst girls only increase it to 133 g/L.5
Boys are also coming under greater pressure to fit a physical ideal than ever before, so be aware that if your son has started dieting, he might not be getting the iron he needs.
Iron and Diet
The increasing number of overweight and obese people often makes the news, and teenagers are included in this. Not only are more children overweight now than before, overweight children are also heavier than they were previously.6 However, the greater amount of food eaten by these children does not protect them from iron deficiency. In fact, overweight teenagers are twice as likely to be iron deficient as those with a normal weight.6
Girls are particularly at risk of iron deficiency if they are overweight as they tend to grow faster and mature earlier than normal-weight girls. This makes it even harder for them to get enough iron to meet their needs.6
Teenagers like to feel in control – and that includes over what they eat; whether they are trying to lose weight, filling up on junk food, or making a lifestyle choice can all have an impact on whether they are getting the iron they need. Meat is an important source of iron, and vegetarians need to be careful to get plenty of iron from non-meat sources. However, children struggle to eat enough vegetable sources of iron – for example 25% of vegetarian schoolchildren in Britain are anaemic.
Iron for Learning
Iron is needed during puberty for growth and to replace losses from periods, but it is also important for learning.7 Having low iron levels can affect learning and behaviour, even before anaemia has developed due to iron deficiency.8 Children with iron deficiency are twice as likely to be below average in maths than children with enough iron.9 Also, giving an iron supplement to teenage girls who had low iron stores, i.e. iron deficiency improved their memory and verbal learning.8
The teenage years are full of exams that impact on their future. Making sure they have a healthy diet and enough iron can help them fulfil their academic potential.
Iron for Athletes
Getting your kids involved in sport is a great way to keep them fit and busy, and help them to make new friends and use up all their energy. However, as they enter puberty high levels of exercise may start to affect their iron levels.
Having enough iron is important for your teenager to perform at their best. Iron deficiency reduces the amount of oxygen your body gets when you are exercising, reducing the amount of exercise you can do.10
Supporting Your Teenager
Teenagers are at greater risk of not having enough iron, at a time when they really need it. To learn about foods that are rich in iron see our section on “choosing your food wisely” where you will also find tips on making sure the most iron is absorbed.
If you think your child may have low iron levels you can use our Symptom Browser to look for the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency. Also get them to tell you if they feel particularly tired or are struggling to concentrate at school. If they do complain of feeling exhausted a lot, then try and get them to complete our Fatigue Questionnaire. This will give them and/or you a good starting point for a discussion with their doctor.
Whether your teenager plays in all the school teams, has become vegetarian, or is simply moody, don’t forget that they need twice as much iron in their diet than pre-puberty to get them through.5