Nutrition in Lead Poisoning, by Susan McQuillan, M.S., R.D.

Susan McQuillan is a registered dietitian who earns her living by writing books and magazine articles about food and nutrition. Her daughter Molly was born in Jiangxi province on November 15, 1997 and adopted on October 8, 1998. Susan made this special contribution to ChinaSprout’s visitors. She also moderates  China Sprout’s bulletin board discussion forum for the topic of ”Nutrition”.


If your child has high lead levels in her blood, you won’t know about it until you get home and have her tested. But you’ll already have done the first best thing you could do by getting her out of the environment that was poisoning her.

While you’re waiting for her blood levels to go down (and they will!), there are a couple of things you can do with her diet to help things along. First of all, keep in mind that lead competes with other minerals, such as iron and calcium, for absorption into the body. In other words, your body will absorb lead instead of calcium and iron, especially if there’s not enough calcium and iron in the diet. Nutritionally speaking, the most important thing you can do is be sure your child is getting enough of these minerals every day.

You probably already know that red meat is the best food source of iron and dairy products are the best sources of calcium. But that doesn’t mean you have to feed your daughter red meat and milk if you oppose these foods or your child cannot eat them for one reason or another. Many different foods supply some iron or calcium and many foods are enriched with these minerals. If your child shows signs of iron deficiency (which may or may not be a result of lead poisoning), her pediatrician may recommend a supplement. Be sure to speak with the pediatrician before you give your child supplements of any kind.

Your child should get at least 800 milligrams (mg) of calcium from her diet. Some top sources (and their approximate calcium content) include:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt 450 mg)
  • 1 cup whole milk (300 mg)
  • 1 ounce Swiss or cheddar cheese (200 mg)
  • 1 ounce ground almonds (80 mg)
  • 1 cup cooked broccoli (80 mg)
  • 1 cup cooked kale (80 mg)

Any food made with milk—puddings, custards, ice creams, milk shakes, and frozen yogurts—all contribute some calcium to the diet, though you may want to limit these foods for the obvious reason that they can be high in fat and sugar. In addition, many dairy product alternatives, such as beverages, cheeses and yogurts made from soy, rice, and oats are enriched with calcium and other nutrients found in milk and milk products. Check the label to be sure you’re buying an enriched product.

Young children need about 10 milligrams (mg) of iron a day (check with your pediatrician to determine your child’s actual need according to her age). Some of the best food sources of iron include:

  • 1/2 cup tofu (7 mg)
  • 1/2 cup cooked lentils (3 mg)
  • 1 small baked potato (3 mg)
  • 1/2 cup cooked navy beans, lima beans or other legumes (2 mg)
  • 1 cup split pea soup (2 mg)
  • 1 ounce lean steak (1 mg)

Enriched breakfast cereals and grain products such as bread and pasta are often very good sources of iron. Serve non-meat sources of iron with foods that contain vitamin C for better iron absorption. Foods that are high in vitamin C include broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi, cantaloupe, strawberries, oranges, orange juice and other citrus, and any fruit juice or other product that is enriched with vitamin C.

If you have any further  questions about calcium, iron, or nutrition in lead
poisoning, ask Susan through the bulletin board.