As a plant based mother with a plant based baby, I often worry if I am meeting my daughters nutritional needs. It’s a valid concern to have, but I think being plant based isn’t the basis of the concern. I am sure that all parents of varying diets worry about meeting their babies nutritional needs, it’s in our nature!
Am I producing enough breast milk?
What do I do if my baby doesn’t like vegetables?
Am I offering my baby enough solid foods?
These are questions we ask ourselves, regardless if we are plant based or not. There is however, a societal factor that perhaps makes plant based parents even more concerned about meeting these needs. I know that my plant based diet is adequate, but there are people in my life that often question if this is okay for my baby and in turn this has me questioning it myself.
In this post, I am specifically going to cover meeting iron requirements of plant based infants. Hopefully the information provided can help you have some background knowledge on meeting iron needs. I know that putting this information together has given me the tools to be able to have a somewhat educated conversation next time I am faced with concerns over my baby meeting their nutritional needs.
All of the information provided below has been referenced with links to the source of the information. I have used Australian based sources. The below information is my interpretation of the research that I have done. Please consider doing your own research before adjusting your child’s diet.
What does iron do anyway?
It’s funny that I have been in discussions (borderline arguments) about if a plant based diet is sufficient for my baby, yet I am no expert, I didn’t know why iron was so important to begin with!
The main function of the mineral called iron, is to transport oxygen around the body. One of the most notable symptoms of iron deficiency is fatigue.
There is a whole lot of biology around iron and I am not going to get into it in this post. I have links down below which explain further the different types of iron (those absorbed from animal sources vs plant sources).
The human body doesn’t make iron, it comes from the foods we eat (animal or plant). The absorption rate is higher when coming from animal sources however it can definitely be obtained from plants and there are extra steps you can follow to increase the absorption.
How much iron does my baby/toddler actually need?
Infants aged 7-12 months that are on a typical western diet, have an RDI (Recommended Dietary Intake) of 9mg. This is calculated based on an 18% absorption rate from animal products. As plant based sources have an approximate absorption rate of 10%, we would need to consume an additional 1.8 times of this, calculating in at 16.2mg.
Children aged 1 – 3 years on a typical western diet have an RDI of mg. 11mg. Taking into consideration the absorption rate from plant based sources, the RDI for a plant based baby is approximately 19.8mg.
Plant based iron sources
If you eat a whole foods plant based diet, you are likely meeting your iron needs anyway, as it is found in legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), oats, rice, quinoa, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, tofu, tempeh, nuts and lots more.
Another way to get iron in a plant based diet is to eat foods which have been fortified with it. Pretty much all baby cereals are fortified with iron and this is because during processing, the nutrients are lost, essentially it is added back in. Often, a lot of processed, plant based foods are fortified with iron, B12 and more.
How to increase iron absorption
Pairing iron rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C is an easy way to increase iron absorption. The vitamin C helps the body absorb and store iron. Vitamin C rich foods are citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, potatoes and more.
Cook your iron rich fruit and vegetables rather than eat them raw. The body absorbs about 6% of iron from raw broccoli compared to 30% from cooked!
Example meal ideas
The below is a guide only and estimated amounts. These amounts are in addition to what is found in breast milk or formula.
Breakfast – 1 cup of cooked oats (2.1mg), 2 slices of avocado white toast (2.4mg), 1 serving of baby rice cereal fortified with iron (2.3mg), 1 tablespoon of hulled hemp seeds (0.8mg)
Lunch – 2 tablespoons of chickpeas (1.6mg), half a cup of cooked quinoa (1.4mg), 100gm boiled broccoli (0.67mg), 1 tablespoon of almond butter (1.6mg)
Dinner – 50gm of tofu (2.7mg), half a cup of mashed sweet potato (1.7mg), half a cup of boiled lentils (3.3mg), 1 cup of peas (2.1mg), 1 cup of asparagus (2.9mg)
Remember to serve a source of vitamin C with all meals as well to aid in the absorption of iron.
Putting these examples together really reinforced how important it is to ensure I am feeding my baby a variety of foods and a balanced diet. Not every meal that I serve is perfect but having the extra awareness of the amounts of iron in certain portion sizes means that the next meal can be meeting the nutritional needs that the previous meal did not.