This past week, a study was released from Poland in which the diet and iron status of vegetarian children were investigated (1). To the researchers knowledge, it was the first study to examine the diet and iron status of Caucasian children, and I know of only one other study on any vegetarian children, a study from India that I mention below.
Some quick background: Meat contains about 40% of its iron as heme-iron, which is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is the only iron found in plants. Because iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in Western countries, especially among menstruating women who lose blood (and, therefore, iron) every month, there is a concern about vegetarians getting enough iron.
The study from Poland compared 22 vegetarian children (5 ate fish, none were vegan) to 18 omnivores, aged 2 to 18 years old. Of the vegetarian girls of menstruating age, 2 of the 5 had iron deficiency anemia, whereas none of the 4 omnivore menstruating girls had iron deficiency anemia. The researchers noted that their anemia was not due to menstrual period disorders, and that they had been trying to lose weight for “quite a long time.” Of the vegetarians, 36% (8) had iron deficiency compared to only 11% (2) of the omnivores.
Median iron intake in vegetarians was only 65% of the RDA, but the omnivores was even lower at 60%. 82% of vegetarian children did not meet the iron RDA while none of the omnivore children met it. As for vitamin C, which increases plant iron absorption, the vegetarians had higher intakes (171% vs. 95% of the RDA). The average vitamin C intake for the vegetarians was 69 mg per day.
As the vegetarian children got older, their iron intake decreased (as a percentage of the RDA). The researchers suggested that as the kids got into their teens, parents had less input on their food choices and the quality of their diets suffered.
There was no association found between vitamin C intake and iron status. A significant amount of other research has shown that vitamin C can greatly increase iron absorption from plants when eaten at the same meal. It’s possible that you need more vitamin C at meals than these children were getting. The research showing that vitamin C increases iron absorption uses doses from 50 mg up 500 mg per meal. In the study from India mentioned above, vegetarian children with iron deficiency anemia (and low vitamin C intakes) were given 100 mg of vitamin C at both lunch and dinner for 60 days. They saw a drastic improvement in their anemia, with most making a full recovery (2).
It might be a good idea for vegetarian kids, and especially teenage girls, to make sure they eat a food that has a large amount of vitamin C with at least two meals each day, especially meals with legumes. Some foods that are high in vitamin C per typical serving are orange juice and grapefruit juice (80 mg per cup), oranges (50 mg per small orange), broccoli (50 mg per 1/2 cup cooked, chopped), strawberries (85 mg per 1 cup of whole berries), grapefruit (40-50 mg per 1/2 fruit), yellow peppers (70 mg per 1/4 cup chopped), and red peppers (50 mg per 1/4 cup chopped).
As an aside, the note I had in my post about supporting JackNorrisRD.com by purchasing music through Amazon links might have seemed strange given that if you get my blog as an email via Feedburner, it did not include the links. So, I have reproduced them below. Thank you!
1. Gorczyca D, Prescha A, Szeremeta K, Jankowski A. Iron Status and Dietary Iron Intake of Vegetarian Children from Poland. Ann Nutr Metab. 2013 May 25;62(4):291-297. [Epub ahead of print] | link
2. Seshadri S, Shah A, Bhade S. Haematologic response of anaemic preschool children to ascorbic acid supplementation. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr. 1985 Apr;39(2):151-4. (Abstract only) | link