Red meat and fortified milk combat toddler anaemia

Researchers from the University of Otago have discovered that increasing red meat or fortified milk intake can combat falling iron levels in toddlers: a common problem in New Zealand, and thought to be experienced by 1 in 3 toddlers.

Thought to be due to the increased amount of iron needed by toddlers in their second year, falling iron levels can cause anaemia. If severe enough at this age, it can delay brain development and even result in behavioural problems and impaired cognitive function.

Not much research has been done into toddler nutrition and iron levels, but Dr Anne-Louise Heath and Dr Ewa Szymlek-Gay, of the University of Otago, wanted to test whether food-based strategies such as increasing red meat or fortified milk intake could combat the problem.

They found that toddlers fed fortified milk increased their iron stores, and the iron stores of those fed red meat stopped declining, suggesting that either approach is likely to prevent a decline.

Both approaches have their pros and cons, and the researchers want to further investigate whether a combined approach might offer improvements in iron status.

The University of Otago’s release can be found here, and the research is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Dr Clare Wall, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Auckland, comments:

“This is an important study as it confirms the findings of other studies in New Zealand which have found associations between iron deficiency and dietary factors in this age group. Studies in New Zealand and overseas have demonstrated that the consumption of iron-fortified milk is effective at preventing and treating iron deficiency in this age group.

“Older infants and toddlers are at greater risk of developing iron deficiency due to their increased requirements for growth and their decreased dietary iron intakes. As they transition off breast milk and/or infant formula onto a more varied diet it is sometimes difficult to meet their high dietary requirements for iron.Toddlers also often consume large amounts of cow’s milk which can displace other foods in their diet and reduce their intake of nutrients such as iron.

“Dietary approaches to prevent iron deficiency should encourage eating a varied diet including red meat but should also recognise that there are some toddlers that may require iron fortified milk past 12 months of age. These would include infants who are: vegetarian or vegan; very fussy eaters; and infants who were small at birth and have had an accelerated growth rate in the first year of life.”

Dr Anne-Louise Heath, of the Department of Nutrition at the University of Otago, and co-author of the research, comments:

“A survey carried out by Dr Elaine Ferguson at the University of Otago showed that up to 1 in 3 toddlers have low iron levels. Although severe iron deficiency is rare, these high levels of iron depletion are a concern because they increase a child’s risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia which can have serious consequences.

“In the Toddler Food Study we determined how effective two practical strategies would be for preventing these low iron levels: increasing red meat intake, or using an iron-fortified “toddler milk” instead of the toddlers’ usual cows’ milk. We found that if you increase red meat intake then you can prevent toddler’s iron levels dropping; and that if you replace toddlers’ usual cows’ milk with iron-fortified “toddler milk”, iron levels improve. These are both practical and effective approaches that parents can use with their toddlers. However, if they are concerned about their toddlers’ iron levels they should talk to their Well Child Provider or GP.”

News coverage:

Otago Daily Times: Red meat boosts kids’ iron: study

New Zealand Herald/NZPA: Fortified milk, red meat aid toddlers

Radio New Zealand: More red meat or fortified milk advised for toddlers