All ironed out? That's bad for the brain.......

A new study suggests that babies who are iron-deficient may have problems when it comes to attention and memory. Poor nutrition has a lot to answer for, so how can we make sure our children eat right?

New research which links iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) in babies with poor attention and memory skills, backs up various older studies in which babies with IDA had lower cognitive test scores than babies without the condition. The older research also indicated that each 10g of missing iron may decrease IQ scores by as much as 1.7 points as children grow. Poor nutrition has previously been linked with aggression in tweens and teens. So, how do we know we are doing enough to make sure our baby or child eats the right foods?

The best start

Up to six months of age, breast or formula milk is sufficient to nourish your baby (once you wean him onto solids he’ll still need milk feeds – check out Your weaning timetable ). Your baby is born with his own stores of iron, gained from you while you were pregnant and absorbed from breast or formula milk (breast milk doesn’t contain much iron but the fact that it’s easily absorbed by your baby makes up for this). Once he gets to around six months his reserves start to run low – and this is where solid foods start to kick in, to make up the shortfall. Giving your baby a good mix of food via a range of tasty baby recipes will ensure that you meet his nutritional needs.

Scaling the food pyramid

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid can help you work out what your older child should be eating each day. Log onto the MyPyramid website and enter your child’s age, weight and daily activity levels to get a tailored nutrition plan with info on how many servings of each food group your child needs to stay healthy. The emphasis is on fruits, veg, whole grains, lean meat and a little healthy fat…
• Whole grains: These are richer in fibre and nutrients than refined grains. Choose wholegrain or wholewheat breads and cereals, and brown rice.
• Vegetables: Ensure your child gets a wide variety of leafy dark green veg (good for iron and calcium if you’re raising your child as a vegetarian), fibre-rich beans and peas and brightly-coloured (carrots, peppers) veg packed with antioxidant vitamins. Choose from fresh, frozen or canned (choose salt-free options).
• Fruit: Any fruit or 100% fruit juice (with pulp is best) counts as a fruit portion; choose from fresh, dried, frozen or canned (preferably in juice, not syrup). If your child isn’t crazy about fruit, he might still enjoy home-made fruit smoothies.
• Milk plus cheese and yogurt: If your child is under two years of age stick to full-fat options; switch him to half fat once he’s over two. Milk is a major source of calcium for kids so if your child doesn’t like it plain, you could try him with chocolate milk (though not all the time!). Some fruit juices are fortified with calcium and are a good option if you avoid animal-based products. You can also top up your child’s calcium intake with plenty of dark green leafy veg and sardines with the soft bones mashed into the flesh.
• Meat: Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry and avoid ground meat wherever possible. If you’re a vegetarian, ensure your child gets enough protein from non-meat sources such as nuts and beans. When choosing fish, give your child an extra nutritional boost with varieties that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may boost brain power and help guard against attention deficit problems.
• Oil: Choose plant-based oils, which are high in beneficial monounsaturated fats and cholesterol-free (though you should avoid coconut and palm kernel oil, which are high in harmful saturated fats). Extra-virgin olive oil is the best choice.

What about vitamins?

According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, as long as you follow the Food Guide Pyramid minimum servings when feeding your child, he shouldn’t need extra vitamins. But what about the times when your child is chowing down on chips and cola at a friend’s house, or bypassing healthy lunch options at school? Or what if he’s a picky eater?

You should always aim to meet your child’s recommended daily intake of vitamins via food, since vitamins and minerals are much more easily absorbed this way and many foods are fortified with extra nutrients. However, a vitamin supplement can be a handy nutritional safety net for kids who don’t eat well and for those who have a health condition that prevents them from absorbing nutrients from food. Give your child as many food sources as possible, but if you feel he may not be getting enough ask your doctor about giving him a vitamin supplement.

Related links

Your Weaning Timetable:  First solids are a big milestone for your baby – and you too! If you’re concerned about what foods to introduce when, use our timetable as a guide…
All You Need to Know about First Solids: Once your baby is around six months old, it’s likely he’ll be ready to try his first solid foods. But just how do you go about helping him make the transition?
Organic Baby Food: Is organic the best choice for babies? Plum Baby Superfoods think so, and here’s why…
Weaning Your Baby on the Best: Weaning your baby can be a difficult time, one where your baby’s individuality has to be taken into account. Susie Willis encourages us to use nutritional super foods, and a little bit of instinct…
Raising a Good Eater: Getting used to new foods and sitting down at the table can be troubling for a child, and nutrition is a constant worry for parents and carers. As seen on the show the Good Eater Technique can be a useful method to calm and encourage a fussy eater, and help get mealtimes back on track…
Baby Weaning Recipes: Your baby has just started eating real food. So what should you cook now? We have some quick and nutritious recipes for your child.
Control those cravings - for you and your baby! New research suggests that a craving for junk food can begin before a baby is born. Is it time to finally ditch the idea that if you’re pregnant you should be eating for two?

Find out more

The British Nutrition Foundation's website provides healthy eating information, resources for schools, news items, recipes and details of the work they undertake around the UK/EU.

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