Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Iron-Rich Foods at 6 months?...New guidelines miss the point

A recent update to Health Canada's Infant Feeding Guidelines has sent ripples of interest through parenting communities.  The guidelines, intended to inform health care professionals on appropriate first foods to recommend to parents, reinforced the 2004-05 guideline message that iron-rich foods are important to include as some of babies first foods.  The guideline provided for the first time examples of such foods, including beef, poultry, fish, eggs and soy.

Iron is an important mineral we require throughout our lives.  It helps build blood, transport oxygen, provides energy, helps build hormones and protects the immune system. 

Why all the fuss?  Well, to begin with, most parents are familiar with giving infants "iron-fortified" cereals, and not as familiar with pureed steak and mashed fish.  If we look at traditional diets from around the world we see that most cultures introduce iron-rich foods well before starchy foods like grains and legumes.  Nature does a great job of providing us with balanced foods.  In our boxed and packaged world we seem to think adding iron to carbs is just as effective as eating foods naturally high in iron.  This is not the case.  Eating whole foods, grown in and on a healthy land, is the most effective way to achieve a truly balanced diet.

What people are missing:

So, yes, consuming foods high in iron will be the most effective way of increasing iron stores in the body.  But why are our kids low in iron in the first place?  One little line ignored for the most part in the Health Canada Infant-Feeding Guideline gives us the answer: "Most healthy term infants are born with sufficient iron stores to meet their iron needs until they are about six months".  What happens at 6 months?  Two things actually change at this point: infant requirements for iron almost double, and breast milk continues to decline in iron content.  The iron status in breast milk cannot be altered by maternal iron supplementation after birth.  So in healthy children where does the extra iron for baby come from?  Here's the "Ah Ha moment" most people seem to be missing.  At 6 months of age infants begin aggressively drawing on their own iron body reserves, reserves that are the result of 9 months in mom.  When mom's iron stores are low prior to pregnancy and/or iron intake during pregnancy is low, baby is born with reduced iron stores and will certainly need to be supplemented earlier on with iron-rich foods.Children who are born to mothers with appropriate (not just low-normal) iron stores are perfectly set up for at least 12 months of healthy iron status after birth.

No surprise, the real solution to iron-deficiency in infants is proper pre-natal and peri-natal support.  Health promotion over disease management.

Iron status is only one of the variables Naturopathic Doctors evaluate in pregnancy planning visits.  If you are currently pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, come in soon and speak to one of our NDs.