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Milk Free Diet for Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron Deficiency Anemia or IDA is the most common of anemia. We get iron from certain foods and our bodies use the iron to form hemoglobin to bring oxygen to the cells in your body. When our iron is low, there can be a number of harmful effects on the body. Some symptoms of IDA include fatigue, pale skin, weakness, poor appetite, headache, irritability, unusual food cravings, and impaired growth and development. In infants and preschoolers, IDA can result in developmental delays and behavioral problems.

Common causes of iron deficiency anemia in children:

Excessive milk intake

Poor solid intake

Why does excessive milk intake cause iron deficiency anemia?

Milk has some good qualities (protein, calcium, vitamin D, etc.) However, milk and milk substitutes (like soy milk) are not good for children with iron deficiency anemia for a number of reasons.

  1. Milk and milk substitutes are poor sources or iron.
  2. Milk interferes with the body’s ability to absorb iron from food and supplements.
  3. Cow’s milk can cause intestines to lose small amounts of blood. When blood is lost, iron is lost with it.
  4. Excessive milk intake can lead children to consume less solid foods because of the fill up on the liquid. Solid foods are where the iron in a child’s diet typically comes from.

Treating iron deficiency anemia:


    Remove all milk and milk substitutes from your child’s diet. Encourage your child to drink water or a small amount of juice. It is okay to continue with other dairy, such as cheese and yogurt.

    Once your child’s hemoglobin and iron stores have been repleted you may add small amounts back to the diet. Your doctor will tell you when it’s appropriate for your child to have milk again, but typically milk will still be limited to no more than 16-20 ounces per day.
  2. Encourage good food sources of iron at each meal.
  3. Match iron sources with Vitamin C sources to increase iron absorption.
  4. Give your child their iron supplement as prescribed.
  5. Plan to serve your child 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day at scheduled times to promote better hunger. Do not allow grazing in between these times as grazing does not promote good hunger. Offer only water to drink in between meals and snacks.
  6. Offer only a small amount of liquid with meals initially and encourage your child to eat the solid foods.
  7. If still bottling and over 1 year of age, wean the child from the bottle as soon as able. Never ever put the child to bed with the bottle. Liquids such as milk and juice contain sugars that sit on around a child’s gums and teeth and promote very early tooth decay.

Sources of iron

Jarred baby foods:

Meats, green peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, rice cereal, oatmeal cereal, brown rice cereal

Table foods:

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Duck
  • Fish - cod, tuna
  • Shellfish - shrimp, clams/mussels/oysters
  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Egg Yolks
  • Leafy Greens - kale, turnip greens, collard greens)
  • Beans & Legumes - lima beans, dry beans, pinto beans, baked beans, lentils
  • Peas - green peas, black eyes peas
  • Whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, and ready to eat cereal

Sources of Vitamin C (Vitamin C increases the body’s ability to absorb iron)

  • Citrus fruits - oranges, grapefruits, 100% orange or grapefruit juice
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Bell peppers - red, orange, green
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Potatoes
  • Leafy greens
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower


This information is not specific to your child but provides general information. If you have any questions, please call your clinic or health care professional.

Reviewed 10/2016

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