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While most children and adults get enough zinc through diet alone,vegetarians and adults over age 60 are at risk for zinc deficiency, says Emily Ho, PhD, Director of the Moore Family Center For Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition, and Preventative Health at Oregon State University.
That’s because both populations eat diets high in plant-based foods. Not only are there lower amounts of zinc in these foods as compared to animal proteins, but whole grains and legumes also contain phytates that bind zinc and make it harder for your body to absorb, says Ananda Prasad, MD, PhD, distinguished professor at the department of oncology at Wayne State University.
While both Ho and Prasad say zinc deficiency is difficult to detect, there are some symptoms that point to it. Here, 6 to look out for. (Snack AND lose weight with this box of Prevention-approved treats from Bestowed.)
Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cognitive impairment, atherosclerosis, neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases, age-related degenerative diseases, and Wilson’s disease—research has tied zinc deficiency to all of these conditions. Prasad and other researchers believe zinc is linked to so many chronic diseases because it plays a crucial role in immune function and healthy cell growth. A lack of zinc, therefore, can increase oxidative stress and inflammation—both of which have been strongly associated with chronic disease.
Like we said—zinc is important to immune health. Without enough zinc, you don’t have a healthy immune system. And without a healthy immune system, you’re vulnerable to infection—whether it be viral or bacterial.
Thinning hair? You might want to get your zinc levels checked. Zinc deficiency can sometimes make your hair fall out, Prasad says. But don’t freak out just yet. If you haven’t noticed the other symptoms, then your hair loss is likely from something else. Only severe cases of zinc deficiency result in hair loss (as well as frequent diarrhea, impotence, and eye and skin lesions.)
In addition to immune function and cell growth, zinc is also important for proper sense of taste and smell. So it may not come as a shock that zinc deficiency can make food start to taste…different. It’s especially prevalent for the 60+ crowd who are already at more risk of zinc deficiency and may have other factors that affect taste, like using multiple medications, according to a study published in The Journal Of The American Society Of Consultant Pharmacists.
Zinc can mess with other senses, too. In a study of 100 patients, some withhearing loss and some without, researchers found that about 12% had low zinc levels, and those who were deficient in zinc had much more severe hearing loss than those who weren’t. Another study, of 66 patients, attempted to treat hearing loss with zinc supplements. Researchers found that those who had zinc supplements had significant gains in hearing. They theorize this may be because antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of zinc reduce oxidative stress in the inner ear.
Perhaps the biggest sign of zinc deficiency is only noticeable in children. Both Ho and Prasad stress that adequate zinc is particularly important for kids because of the element’s role in cell growth. A lack of zinc as a kid results in stunted growth. Luckily, it’s easy for kids in the U.S.—where we have no shortage of animal protein—to get adequate zinc through their diet. One beef patty has 5 mg of zinc—more than half of what a kid needs in a day.
Did you mentally check off a few too many of these symptoms? That still doesn’t necessarily point to zinc deficiency, Ho says. Since many of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, there’s no way to know for sure that it’s a lack of zinc causing problems. And even going to the doctor might not tell you—zinc affects many different proteins in the body, so there’s no clear sign or good diagnostic test to determine a deficiency, Ho says.
The good news is that if you, or your doctor, suspect a zinc deficiency, it’s incredibly easy (and cheap!) to fix. Just take a daily multivitamin, which has 10 to 15 mg of zinc—more than enough to satisfy your daily needs (8 mg for adult women and 11 for adult men.) Ho suggests everyone take a multivitamin, just to make sure you’re getting enough zinc, but says it’s especially important for vegetarians and people 60 or older.