Study identifies children with obesity at higher risk of iron deficiency

June 3rd, 2024

A new United Kingdom study carried out by researchers from the School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, has found that children and adolescents who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of iron deficiency.

Although iron deficiency is already recognised as a problem in obese adults, the researchers said the study was the first to examine the association in children.

Experts say iron is essential in the body of all humans. Its functions are to transport around the body, cell respiration,n and as well store oxygen in muscles.

The researchers in the study published in ScienceDaily examined thousands of medical studies from 44 countries involving people under the age of 25 where levels of iron and other vitamins and minerals had been recorded alongside weight.

The research team found that iron deficiency was associated with both underweight and overweight children and adolescents.

They stated that iron deficiency in children hurts brain function, including attention, concentration,n, and memory, and can increase the risk of conditions, such as autism and ADHD.

Lead author Xiaomian Tan, a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition said, “The relationship between undernutrition and critical micronutrients for childhood growth and development is well established, but less is known about the risk of deficiencies in iron, vitamin A and zinc in children and adolescents who are overweight or obese, making this a hidden form of malnutrition.

“Our research is hugely important given the high prevalence of obesity in children. We hope it will lead to increased recognition of the problem by healthcare practitioners and improvements in clinical practice and care.”

According to the researchers,  the problem of iron deficiency has been linked to malnutrition and it is a particular concern for lower- and middle-income countries where hunger may be the leading cause of mortality for young children.

“Increasingly though it is being recognised that vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also occur in people who are overweight and obese and who have a nutrient-poor but energy-dense diet, something which has been described as ‘hidden hunger’.

“In high-income countries, it is associated with ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt, and energy but in lower- and middle-income countries obesity is often associated with poverty and monotonous diets with limited choices of staples such as corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes”, the researchers said.

They disclosed that many developing countries are now facing a double burden of malnutrition alongside overnutrition due to the rapid increase in the global prevalence of obesity in recent decades, especially in children aged between five and 19.

The research also highlights differences in focus between higher-income countries and developing nations, with most studies in Africa and Asia focusing on undernutrition and those from North America and Europe focusing entirely on overnutrition.

The researchers said this is particularly concerning as both Africa and Asia are experiencing the highest double burden of malnutrition due to economic growth and the transition to a Western-style high-sugar, high-fat diet.

Speaking on how to tackle the problem, a nutritionist, Yemisi Solanke-Lawal, urged pregnant women and nursing mothers to ensure they eat healthy meals to avoid depriving their children of the needed iron.

Solanke-Lawal said, “Iron is essential in the body of all humans. Its functions are to transport oxygen around the body, cell respiration, and as well store oxygen in muscles.

“Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritionally deficiency in the world, affecting a quarter of the global population, especially those less than five years of age with high prevalence in Africa.”

The nutritionist listed physical signs of iron deficiency anaemia in children to include “fatigue, breathlessness on exertion, anorexia, insomnia, spoon-shaped fingers, high blood pressure and severe cases of oedema, the whiteness of fingernails and the mucous membrane in the mouth and under eyelids,” saying such required urgent attention.


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