Zinc for plant-based babies. What does zinc do and how much zinc do kids need? Here are some of the best vegan sources of zinc and how to incorporate them into your baby’s diet.
Even though zinc isn’t found widely in plant foods, research shows that the zinc status of vegetarians and non-vegetarians are actually pretty similar.
Still, the body doesn’t have a storage system to maintain zinc levels for long periods. This means that it’s important for us to regularly consume sources of it – starting in childhood.
Here’s what you need to know about zinc, including how much zinc kids need, and some of the best places to find it on a plant-based diet.
What does zinc do?
Zinc is an essential mineral for numerous metabolic and enzymatic functions in the human body.
We need zinc for DNA and protein synthesis, wound healing, and cell division.
One of the best-known roles of zinc is related to immunity, as it’s needed to help the body fight off potentially harmful germs and keep us healthy.
You’ve probably seen zinc lozenges at the grocery store, which become especially popular during cold and flu season when everyone is looking for that extra immunity boost.
For kids specifically, zinc is needed to support normal growth and development. We also need zinc in order for our taste and smell senses to work properly.
Zinc needs for kids
Zinc requirements can be met through fortified infant formula or breast milk for the first several months of life.
However, research shows that zinc concentration in breast milk decreases as lactation continues, and is unaffected by mom’s zinc consumption or supplementation.
Furthermore, overall zinc intake of infants decreases during the weaning period. Zinc-containing first foods and/or supplements should be provided on a daily basis to ensure adequate levels are always available in the body.
Below are the RDAs for zinc from infancy through young adulthood.
*Note that for 0-6 month old infants, the recommended amount is an AI (Adequate Intake) equivalent to the average intake of zinc among healthy breast-fed infants.
- 0-6 months: 2 mg*
- 7-12 months: 3 mg
- 1-3 years: 3 mg
- 4-8 years: 5 mg
- 9-13 years: 8 mg
- 14-18 years, female: 9 mg
- 14-18 years, male: 11 mg
What can happen if your baby doesn’t get enough zinc?
Symptoms of zinc deficiency can include slowed growth, appetite loss, and impaired immunity.
As deficiency becomes more severe, it can cause hair loss, delayed sexual maturation, taste abnormalities, and cognitive issues like mental fog.
The good news is that as long as your child is being offered a wide variety of whole plant foods on a regular basis, and you are supplementing where needed, zinc deficiency is uncommon in developed countries like the United States.
Best plant sources of zinc
In order to meet zinc requirements, it’s helpful to know how much zinc is in some common food sources that can be introduced and offered to babies and kids.
While the foods with the highest zinc concentration tend to be animal-derived, like meat, shellfish, eggs, and dairy, there are several plant sources as well.
Some of the best vegan sources of zinc include:
- 1/2 cup of vegetarian baked beans: 2.9 mg
- 1 serving of zinc-fortified breakfast cereal (which is noted to contain 25% of the Daily Value for zinc): 2.8 mg
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal: 2.3 mg
- 1 ounce pumpkin seeds: 2.2 mg
- 1/2 cup firm tofu: 2 mg
- 1 ounce dry-roasted cashews: 1.6 mg
- 1/2 cup boiled lentils: 1.3 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked or canned chickpeas: 1.3 mg
- 1/2 an avocado: 0.7 mg
- 1/2 cup frozen green peas: 0.5 mg
While other fruits and veggies, like tomatoes, avocados, peaches, broccoli, mushrooms, cantaloupe, and berries contain some zinc as well, it’s typically a very small amount in a child-sized serving. While these foods of course offer other nutrients and health benefits, they shouldn’t be relied upon to meet zinc needs.
Be sure to offer zinc-rich foods in an age appropriate texture. For instance, nuts and seeds may need to be pureed into butters, thinned, and mixed into other foods like yogurt or oatmeal.
Beans can be mashed and spread onto strips of toast or soft-cooked and presented as-is for first finger foods.
If you give your baby a multivitamin, check what form of zinc is used. Research indicates that two of the best-absorbed forms are zinc gluconate and zinc citrate.
How to boost zinc absorption
Studies have found that compounds called phytates can inhibit the absorption of certain micronutrients, including zinc.
Phytates are commonly found in plant foods like seeds, grains, and legumes, so it’s a good chance that your family eats them regularly – but don’t be alarmed!
While phytates are often sensationalized as being “anti-nutrients”, a 2013 meta-analysis found that vegans only have a slightly lower zinc status than people who eat animal products.
Furthermore, protein can boost zinc absorption, so eating these two nutrients around the same time can be beneficial.
Plant foods like legumes and nuts are conveniently high in both protein and zinc. Leavened bread (which is most bread) and soy foods, like tofu and tempeh, also appear to increase the bioavailability and absorption of zinc.
We hope this helps if you’re wondering where to get zinc for plant-based babies. There are plenty of vegan sources of zinc. Providing a wide variety of whole plant foods, as well as a zinc-containing supplement where appropriate, is the best way to make sure you’re meeting your plant-based babe’s zinc requirements.
Chime In: What zinc-rich foods does your family enjoy and which new ones do you think you’ll try?
If you liked this post, we think you’ll like some of these other ones too:
- Vitamin B12 for Plant-Based Kids
- Best Sources of Vitamin A for Kids
- PB3 Plate: What is it and how do you use it?
- Benefits of Beans for Babies
P.S. For more information – and our recommendations – around nutrient supplements for plant-based children, grab your copy of our free supplement guide.