Researchers have recently discovered that healthy brain wiring in adults depended on having good iron levels as a teenager.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, causing poor cognitive achievement in school-aged children. But what scientists have just discovered is that there is a relationship between poor iron levels in children, and the brain’s physical structure later in life.
UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson said of his discovery: “You wouldn’t think the iron in our diet would affect the brain so much in our teen years. But it turns out that it matters very much. Because myelin speeds your brain’s communications, and iron is vital for making myelin, poor iron levels in childhood erode your brain reserves which you need later in life to protect against aging and Alzheimer’s.”
“This connection was a lot stronger than we expected, especially as we were looking at people who were young and healthy — none of them would be considered iron-deficient.”
Professor Thompson said the findings reinforce the teenager’s need for a balanced diet, when the brain’s command centre is actively maturing.
How much iron does your teenager need?
Sarah Leung, dietician and director of Healthy Energy in Glen Waverley, Victoria says teenage boys need 11 mg/day and girls need slightly more at 15 mg/day.
There are two types of iron available to our body: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in meat, chicken and fish, and non-haem iron is found in eggs, green leafy vegetables, legumes, wholegrain, dried fruit and iron fortified foods.
“Haem iron is well absorbed by the body and non-haem iron is poorly absorbed by the body,” explains Sarah.”Therefore vegetarians need to consume more iron-rich foods and include vitamin C rich foods to assist with iron absorption.”
Sarah gives the following guidelines to help your teenager meet their RDI:
- Breakfast – 2 Weet Bix (2.5 mg)
- Lunch – 2 slices wholemeal bread (1.2 mg), 2 slices of ham (0.6 mg)
- Dinner – 100g lean beef (3.5 mg), ½ cup vegetables (1 mg), 1 cup of rice (0.6 mg)
- Snack – muesli bar (2 g)
- Total iron 11.4 mg
- Egg 1 whole (0.7 mg)
- ½ cup baked beans (2 mg)
- 5 dried apricot (1.3 mg)
Teen girls and vegetarians at risk
Although iron deficiency is not common in Australian teenagers, Sarah says teenage girls are among the most at risk.
“Although our body will increase absorption when iron level is low or decrease absorption when iron is overloaded, absorption rate depends on the individual,” she says. “Populations who are most at risk of deficiency are female, vegetarian, low energy or fad dieters, people with low intake or poor absorption, frequent blood donors and sufferers of injuries associated with blood loss.”