Zinc may not the first mineral to come to mind when energy levels are flagging. It's far more likely to be recommended for wound healing or during a cold. Zinc does, however, have a few vital roles to play in the body that contribute to the production of energy. Today, I look at what zinc is, how our body uses it, who might be low in zinc and what foods are a good source of zinc.
An enzyme is a type of modified protein that acts as a chemical catalyst in the body. In other words, it can start a chemical reaction in the body. If a chemical reaction is like a light switch being turned on, an enzyme is like a finger that presses the switch.
We need zinc to 'turn on' the chemical processes that break down food into little molecules. The tiny food molecules can then pass into the blood and get carried around the body to all of our bits. All the carbohydrates, fat and protein that we eat, need zinc to be there if they are to get turned into energy.
Appetites needs zinc
Zinc is needed for appetite. Zinc deficiency can affect the senses; taste and smell. Imagine trying to make healthy food choices without your taste and smell. Fresh fruit and delicious homemade meals would taste like cardboard. All the enjoyment of smelling, tasting and eating food would be lost. I would be shovelling in the salt and sugar to try and get some satisfaction. That wouldn't help. Sometimes a zinc deficiency may cause a reduced desire for food which could lead to weight loss. Without enough good food in the diet; energy levels will suffer.
Stomach acid needs zinc
Without zinc, it is tricky for the body to produce gastrin. This is the magic-mix goo of acid, digestive enzymes and mucus that are the stomach's secretions. When you pop food in your gob, it gets chewed, swallowed and makes its way to the stomach. This expands as you keep eating, triggering gastrin release. Then strong muscles churn everything - all the food and gastrin up together. Mucus acts as a thick acid-proof protective layer. It stops the acid from doing any damage to our insides. Stomach acid is Hydrochloric acid, which is strong enough to eat through metal! This would explain why it is so good at breaking down nutrients in food, like proteins and minerals. Stomach acid also activates enzymes like pepsin. Pepsin can digest tough amino acids that make up a protein like your steak dinner. If your gastrin and stomach acid isn't strong it will not be able to break down food well. Iron, Calcium, Vitamin B12 and even zinc may not be digested properly. Iron and Vitamin B12 deficiencies are known as anaemia. Anaemia is a common cause of low energy and fatigue. Stomach acid will also kill off troublesome bacteria ingested that may make us ill.
So, who might be low on zinc and what can affect absorption?
Those who have had weight loss surgery or suffer from Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. Digestive disorders like this can cause diarrhoea. This may decrease the amount of zinc that the body absorbs. Nutrients can be flushed out before the body can benefit from them.
Vegetarians or vegans. Without meat in the diet, more zinc-rich foods must be eaten. This is because vegetarian foods that are rich in zinc also contain phytic acid. This can interfere with zinc absorption. Never fear – I have some cool solutions for you if you read on!
Drink. Alcohol weakens the mucosal layer that lines and protects our digestive system. Heartburn sufferers beware. It also makes us pee more. If you pee too much you can lose quite a bit of zinc and other nutrients in your urine.
Antacids. Medication that can help relieve the symptoms of GERD and acid reflux can lower stomach acid. Long-term use can affect how well we digest our food including minerals like zinc. Low zinc levels affect gastrin production. A vicious circle is created.
Illness or bad food choices. A diet of chip curry dinners or a tummy bug. Either way, an unbalanced diet may run you down and affect your appetite. This can affect zinc levels which can affect smell, taste and appetite. Another vicious circle.
Older people. Zinc deficiency is more common in older adults. (1) Age also slows the digestive transit – how long it takes for food to get from mouth to the loo. Stomach acid gets lower. Both reasons can affect the person's appetite and how well their food is digested. My old granny couldn't smell a thing and had no interest in food. Because she ate like a bird she was often tired and would nap all the time.
What foods contain zinc?
Zinc is very easy to include in a well-balanced diet, there are lots of options. Just bear in mind that the body does not store it so you have to eat enough every day.
Oysters, crab claws and other shellfish. Prawn cocktails, muscles in garlic breadcrumbs or a crabmeat salad. Oysters may not be the most accessible but a quick yummy prawn stir-fry will do the trick. Why not try our lovely Tiger Prawn and Watermelon Salad?
Beef, pork or fish. You know what to do with these, try to avoid the deep fryer.
There are lots of meat-free alternatives that are rich in zinc. They do contain the pesky phytic acid that interferes with zinc and iron absorption. The solution is easy. Soaking, fermenting or sprouting will break down the phytic acid. The methods will also increase the food's nutritional value. This may give you some nice new serving ideas too, try sprouting or a new fermented food like kefir.
Pulses; Beans, peas and lentils. Baked beans, red kidney bean chilli or try our lovely Homemade Houmous (suitable for vegans and it's gluten-free too).
Seeds and nuts; Pumpkin, cashews and almonds. Try soaking these for a while, then roasting them. It makes them delicious and crunchy. Serve on their own as a snack or on bunged on salads and desserts.
Grains; Fortified cereals, like your cornflakes with their added vitamins minerals. Wheatgerm, porridge oats, wild rice and quinoa. Porridge or bircher muesli for breakfast are easy options, throw a bit of wheatgerm on as a topping.
My top tip - Get with the sprouting!
I love the idea of a vegetable garden but know in my heart of hearts that this is not going to happen. I am also finding it impossible to find good lettuce during these lockdown times. Supermarkets seem to just have those nasty little packet-mixes that smell funny. I have dusted off my BioSnacky sprouting jars. A cute little row of mung bean, alfalfa and little radish seed sprouts are now growing on the window sill. Sprouts are helping to glamour up my sandwiches and salads. Maximum smug factor as well as good zinc sources of food for my energy levels! Kids love sprouting, it can double up as a little home school biology lessons. How bad is it if it gets them eating more veg too?
How to grow bioSnacky®
My Top Tip: Useful as a pick-me-up in the afternoons