Maybe you don’t hear about zinc for kids as much as calcium, iron, and vitamin D, the superstar childhood nutrients. But preventing a zinc deficiency in children is extremely important. Keep reading to find out why!
Did you know that 17% of the world’s population is at risk for a zinc deficiency?
As a parent, you’ve probably experienced some picky eating with your little one. Zinc plays a vital role during childhood, so I want to spotlight this trace mineral for parents.
In this article, I’ll explain why zinc for kids is so important and give you a list of high zinc foods to offer your child.
What Are the Benefits of Zinc for Kids?
Zinc is essential for good health for both parents and kids!
It’s mostly known for boosting the immune system (you’ve probably seen zinc lozenges for colds), but zinc’s job doesn’t stop there. Zinc’s function in growth and brain development makes this nutrient essential during childhood.
Growth and Wound Healing
Children grow rapidly from birth until they are two years old. You can expect your infant’s birth weight to double in the first 5 months. After that, growth slows down during the toddler and school-age years and then goes into overdrive again during the adolescent growth spurt.
Cell growth, tissue repair for wound healing, and protein building for muscles and enzymes require zinc.
A zinc deficiency during childhood can stunt a child’s growth permanently.
Not only are kids growing taller, but their brains are growing too. A newborn’s brain is 25% of its future adult size. And the brain continues to grow exponentially during childhood, reaching 90% of its adult size by 5 years old.
A very young child’s brain is more vulnerable. Not getting enough zinc can have detrimental effects on brain health. A childhood zinc deficiency can affect cognitive development and prevent a child from reaching their full potential.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 5% to 12% of school-aged children.
Zinc plays a role in brain and nerve development. And there appears to be a link between ADHD symptoms and zinc. Kids with ADHD tend to have low zinc levels. However, there’s no clear evidence showing that zinc deficiency causes ADHD.
A child’s immune system is vulnerable for the first 5 years!
Fortunately, newborns get some immunity from their mothers. Breastfeeding gives little ones even more immune protection. A child’s immune system continues to strengthen as they grow, and diet has a lot to do with it.
What kids eat influences the health of the bacteria in their bellies. That’s called the gut microbiome, and it helps boost the immune system. The diet also supports immunity with nutrients like zinc!
Zinc supports the growth of cells, which includes immune cells. Lymphocytes, macrophages and neutrophils are the white blood cells and part of the immune system. A zinc deficiency can slow down the production of white blood cells, which protect the body from viruses and bacteria.
When a child is deficient in zinc, he’s even more vulnerable to getting sick. For example, zinc deficiency plays a role in diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria in children who live in countries where these diseases are common.
How Much Zinc Does a Child Need per Day?
A child’s zinc requirements increase until they reach adulthood. Boys need more zinc than girls because zinc is necessary for their reproductive function.
According to the Dietary Reference Intake, children’s daily zinc requirements are:
- Babies ages 0-6 months need 2 mg/day
- Babies ages 6-12 months need 3 mg/day
- Kids ages 1-3 years need 3 mg/day
- Kids ages 4-8 years need 5 mg/day
- Kids ages 9-13 years need 8 mg/day
- Boys ages 14 and older need 11 mg/day
- Girls ages 14 and older need 8 mg/day
Zinc plays a similar role as iron in growth and development. The difference is that a zinc deficiency’s harmful effects on growth and cognitive development will not improve even after a child is no longer deficient in zinc.
Sometimes other nutrients in the diet cause a deficiency of another nutrient. For example, plant foods inhibit zinc absorption, so kids eating mainly a plant-based diet have a higher risk of deficiency.
Foods High in Zinc for Kids
Zinc is a trace mineral, so kids don’t need it as much as other nutrients. It’s easy for a growing child to meet his needs if you offer these foods as part of your child’s daily intake.
If your child avoids meat and dairy, take special care to include other foods high in zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and B12. Your pediatrician may recommend a multivitamin or a supplement for individual nutrients if your child has an increased risk of deficiency.
- Lean beef
- Baked beans
- Kidney beans
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Low-fat milk
- Pumpkin seeds
Pro tip: Zinc, iron and vitamin D can be toxic at high levels, mainly in supplement form. Aim to offer foods that have a variety of nutrients instead of using vitamin supplements unless your pediatrician prescribes them.
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Final Thoughts about Zinc for Children
Zinc may be a trace mineral, but the small amount a child needs is essential for their growth and development.
A zinc deficiency is more common in low to middle-income countries where kids don’t have access to many high zinc foods. Still, I like to remind parents everywhere how vital it is for kids to get the zinc they need from a healthy diet to reach their full height and cognitive potential.
Which high zinc foods do your kids love to eat?