What is zinc and what does Zinc do in the body?
Zinc is a vital nutrient found in the body. Zinc is involved in almost every biological process in the body. Zinc is essential in numerous micro and macro functions within the body; from maintaining cell health and cell growth to aiding in metabolism to increasing immune response to our ability to taste and smell to reproductive development. When Zinc is lacking in childhood it can lead to stunted growth, a decrease in immune system functioning, GI disruption, poor reproductive development and health, and even neurodevelopmental disruption. In adulthood, zinc deficiency can lead to unhealthy pregnancies, abnormalities in fetal development, higher incidence of diarrhea and other GI illnesses (1,3).
How can you incorporate Zinc in your diet?
Meat, oysters, and selfish are often high in zinc. Wholegrains, nuts, and beans all have the potential to contain lots of zinc, if the soil they are grown in is rich with zinc. It is important to note that diets high in plants, contain things like phytic acid and calcium, which inhibit the absorption on zinc. Thus, people eating a high plant diet should consider incorporating more zinc infused foods in their daily regimen. Zinc can also be acquired in fortified cereals and, obviously, within supplements (2,3).
How are people deficient in Zinc?
One third of the world’s population suffers from a zinc deficiency. More than a fourth of the population of children under 5 years old, worldwide, are experiencing stunted growth due to iron deficiency. Although, most cases of zinc deficiency are mild or moderate, severe zinc deficiency are exponentially dangerous, especially for young children. Some causes of zinc deficiencies among children and adults include: an exclusively breastfed diet for children 7 months old or older, children and adults with Gastrointestinal issues, children and adults that are malnourished, and children and adults that exclusively eat a vegetarian diet. Zinc deficiencies are especially common during major bodily changes, like pregnancy and puberty, or in the throes of a prolonged illness, which all require an increase demand for nutrients. Ultimately, the majority of zinc deficiencies are due to an insufficient amount of zinc being incorporated into a person’s daily diet. It should be noted that moderately or severely lacking zinc in a person’s diet could lead to negative effects, like excessive diarrhea, which ironically causes even more zinc to be unutilized in the body. This then exacerbates the zinc deficiency. Excessive diarrhea could also cause other GI problems, like infections, which would additionally increase the need for more zinc (1,2,3).
What populations are most vulnerable to zinc deficiencies?
Developing countries are typically riddled with people suffering from zinc deficiencies. This is theorized to be due to either a lack of availability of foods high in iron, a financial inability to afford foods high in iron, and/or religious or personal beliefs against eating foods that are highest in iron (ex: meat and selfish). Internationally-adopted children, refugee children, and children living on developing countries with high zinc deficiency populations are especially vulnerable to the effects of zinc deficiency. Sadly, it is estimated that around 4.4% of child deaths in developing countries and territories, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, could have been prevented with proper zinc supplementation. Additionally, 1.2% of malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia incidence, in children under 5, were due to zinc deficiency. The pattern of rampant zinc deficiency in these countries are often characterized by high child morbidity rate, unusual birth complications, high incidence of diarrhea within the population, etc. (1,3)
Why hasn’t zinc supplementation been more widely available to developing countries?
When zinc supplementation has been implemented in zinc deficient developing countries, they found that the incidence of child morbidity rate decreased, reproductive and birth complications decreased, and there was less incidence of diarrhea. In another study it was discovered that stunted growth can be reversed with sufficient intake of zinc, daily, for many consecutive months. So, why aren’t people that live in high zinc deficiency populations being given supplantation by their health care provider? There has not been enough research on what specific areas in developing countries are in the greatest need of zinc supplementation. Thus, zinc supplementation is not being provided. This thought to be due to the high cost of such a large scale investigation, or it could be due to the years of effort needed to perform a study of that size (2,3).
1. Banjeri, Dr. A. and Hunter, Dr. A. (2013). “Zinc Deficiencies.” Caring for Kids New to
2. Damton-Hill, Ian. (2013). “Zinc supplementation and growth in children.” World Health
3. Gupta, S. et al. (2020). “Zinc deficiency in low and middle-income countries: prevalence
and approaches for mitigation.” Wiley Online Library.
Author: Katrina Peavy
Editor: Anum Khan
Public Health Scientist: Aseelah Saiyed