Jan 28, 2014 • 5 min read
By Claire Gaunt, guest writer and biology and nutritional science specialist.
Growing kids who take part in sports require a range of nutrients for growth. When it comes to minerals, the emphasis might be on calcium and iron, but did you know that zinc is also essential? Not only is this micronutrient vital for their growth, but it also important for a range of processes in the body that are relevant to anyone who participates in regular exercise. As up to 10% of children in the US are thought to have a deficiency of this mineral, it’s helpful as a parent to understand where zinc can be sourced from in the diet.
Zinc for growth
Zinc plays a part in hundreds of reactions within the body, including cell division and the production of hormones, both of which are required for growth; it understandable then that insufficient zinc may slow a child’s growth. However, zinc deficiency may also impact upon weight and height gain in other ways too. For instance, an inadequate intake of zinc can lead to reduced appetite and taste changes, which often lead to decreased food intake, so that a child receives less of the nutrients required for growth. As children who take part in sport generally have increased needs for energy, carbohydrates, protein and micronutrients from their diet, this can be a particular concern. Therefore sufficient dietary zinc is crucial to promote healthy growth alongside participation in sporting activities.
Zinc for immune function and wound healing
Your child’s white blood cells, whose job it is to protect them from infections, require a good supply of zinc for optimum function. Therefore inadequate zinc from their diet can impact upon their ability to fight off infections and keep your child in good health, which is particularly important if they train intensely, as this can make them more vulnerable to the effects of viruses and bacteria. Colds and chest infections can also affect children’s sporting performance and may keep them from training, which can lead to a drop in fitness if they suffer from repeated infections and need to take an extended break from sport.
Zinc is important for skin health and a deficiency can mean wounds are more difficult to heal. Cuts, scrapes and bruises are an inevitable part of playing sport, so your kids need enough zinc onboard to ensure that these minor injuries heal well.
Zinc for brain and nerve function
An adequate supply of zinc is essential to maintain the health and function of their nervous system, with a deficiency linked to slowed cognitive ability and muscle movement. A diet rich in zinc not only helps kids in the classroom, but also when they need to make quick decision during a game. It additionally aids their motor function, allowing them to complete their moves.
Although many children are able to get sufficient zinc from their diet, some kids are at risk of deficiency. While this is more likely if your child has a digestive disorder such as celiac disease or crohn’s disease, where they absorb nutrients poorly, fussy eaters and children following a strict vegetarian diet can also be at risk. This stems from the fact that zinc is found in greatest quantities in protein-rich foods, particularly those of animal origin. Therefore, if your child avoids meat, fish, dairy foods and eggs, they could easily be short of this mineral, as according to Ohio State University, close to two-thirds of zinc in our diet is sourced from these foods. It’s no wonder then that KwikMed advises parents to ensure that their children eat plenty of protein in their diet. However, if your child doesn’t eat any animal produce, the best options for zinc are baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, almonds and oatmeal; other pulses and nuts also offer a useful source, as well as breakfast cereals that have been fortified with zinc.
It is important to be aware though that the zinc from plant sources isn’t absorbed as well and that substances known as phytates in pulses andwholegrains can interfere with zinc uptake by the body. This means that children consuming a largely plant-based diet may require up to 50% extra zinc from their foods to compensate for this fact; though soaking pulses and grains can help to reduce the problem with phytates. Another way to maximize your child’s intake of zinc is to avoid overcooking food — so heat gently for only as long as required — as this reduces losses of zinc that occur with heating.
There isn’t currently sufficient evidence to support routinely supplementing a child’s diet with zinc. However, if a blood test reveals that they are deficient, this would be recommended. Therefore if you are concerned that despite eating a well-balanced diet that includes protein-rich foods they are experiencing problems such as poor appetite, frequent infections and you are concerned about their growth, a check-up with their doctor would be advisable.
Claire Gaunt is a freelance writer who specializes in articles on good diet, fitness and nutrition. Prior to becoming a writer she studied biology and nutritional science at college and had a career as a fitness consultant, looking after clients from all walks of life.