THE picky eating nutrient deficiency no one tests for
When we think of a child that is living on crackers and pasta, the first thing that usually jumps to mind is that they are not getting enough protein or iron.
Anytime we feel our child is missing out on nutrients we worry that it will affect their growth and energy levels and it makes mealtimes even more stressful.
But, in my experience working with 100 plus families a year, I find the first nutrient to look into is zinc. I think of it as THE picky eating nutrient. And yet, if you go to the GP it is not on the radar and iron usually is.
NOTE: this information is not medical advice. Please see your medical practitioner if you feel you need additional support for your child.
Why is zinc important?
All of us have a massive need for zinc, but it is especially true for children, as it plays a part in the growth, development and repair of the body. If our child is going through a growth spurt or puberty, they will need even more than usual.
Zinc is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions within our body so if we are deficient it can mean that our body is not maximizing the use of other nutrients either.
All this sounds really worrying, and that is definitely not my intent. I always feel that knowledge is power and that knowing what to look for and how to address it helps us to stop stressing. If we know that zinc deficiency is a factor, then we can take steps to tackle it and therefore one problem is resolved.
What are the signs of a zinc deficiency?
There are a range of things that may become apparent if our child has a zinc deficiency:
1. Low immunity. Which may mean frequent infections especially in the lungs and ears.
2. Acne or other skin complaints. Chapped or cracked lips.
3. White spots on the nail, or nails that are soft or cracking.
4. Slow healing from wounds like knee scrapes.
5. Slow healing from infections like colds.
6. Low sense of smell or taste.
7. Eyes that are sensitive to sunlight.
8. Avoiding meat and protein-rich foods.
Why is zinc The picky eating nutrient?
Fussy eating is such a challenge and zinc can exacerbate or even cause more picky eating problems.
Zinc deficiency can mean:
1. A reduced appetite. What? Yes, it is true. I know of many families who have seen more hunger in their child once a deficiency has been righted.
Thinking about this logically, appetite has a major role in desiring food. If we are not feeling hungry, we are unlikely to be enthusiastic about eating. Sound familiar?
2. A reduction in the sense of smell. Which may seem on the surface to be a good thing, especially as many picky eaters are uncomfortable around foods with strong smells. But, the negative part of having a low smell sensation is that it’s inextricably linked with taste.
3. Foods taste bad or bland. A lack of zinc can make foods taste awful. It can also reduce our ability to taste. Again, this may be seen as an advantage for a child that seems to prefer all the plain tasting foods. But, although children often do prefer plain foods, they still crave flavour in the same way we do.
4. Texture becomes more of a challenge. Imagine if we remove much of the taste from oatmeal or mashed potato, how much less appealing would it be to eat?
5. A reduction in the production of stomach acid. Low stomach acid can mean it is difficult to digest protein, for example. The irony is that zinc is found in high protein foods! Low stomach acid can also lead to cravings and food aversions. None of this is helpful if we already have a child that is consuming a limited diet.
The question is does low zinc cause picky eating or does fussy eating lead to nutrient deficiencies? I think it’s a bit chicken and egg!
What can we do if we suspect our child has low zinc levels?
We can take them to a medical practitioner and request testing. However, I would recommend doing a quick, simple test first.
One of the easy ways to tell whether there is sufficient zinc in the body is by a taste test. Using liquid zinc, you can put a drop on the tongue and if it tastes awful, all is generally okay. If there is no taste, then it is a good indication that levels are too low.
Most of the health-food stores are able to do a quick test. I would of course advise that you’re careful that the sibling of a fussy eater doesn’t go first and leap around the store rubbing the tongue and screaming ‘ew yuck’ prior to a more food sensitive child trying!
If our child is taking a multi-vitamin, the levels in it are often not high enough to cover a dietary deficiency so it’s still worth checking even if one is taken daily. The good news is that if you do choose to supplement you can do this via drops in water or milk so there are no tricky tablets.
If a child is seriously deficient then some supplementation is probably necessary before increasing dietary sources. Our body does demand a lot of zinc so having a good base-level is important and it can be difficult even for competent eaters to overcome a deficiency without some additional boosting.
Which foods will help?
Below is a list of some foods that are zinc-rich. Some are more likely than others to be accepted by a fussy eater:
1. Red meat
2. Chicken – especially the dark meat
3. Fish and seafood. Oysters – very zinc-rich but a big ask even for many adults!
5. Pumpkin seeds
13. Dark chocolate – YES!!
14. Fortified bread and cereals – easier?
There are many ways to support our child to eat some of these foods, for example, using seeds and eggs in baking. If you’d like some help with this, please jump over onto the Facebook page – The Confident Eater – where there is lots of advice around supporting children to eat new foods.
If you do find your child is lacking zinc, then resolving that could really help with the eating. How exciting is that?
Please share with friends and family who may find this supportive.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Judith is also mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/