When my daughter, Molly, was 6 years old and dropped from the 25th percentile in height to below the 3rd percentile, we knew something was wrong. Exactly what was wrong was hard to pinpoint, since her weight was fine, and she was an energetic, happy kid. Still, we had her tested for everything under the sun: anemia, thyroid problems, Turner syndrome, celiac disease. She had none of them. Her pediatrician determined she was just naturally short, as am I (though I am 5’1’’—and her dad is 5’11’’— and at the rate Molly was going, she’d be more like 4’10’’).
Some time later, her gastroenterologist (who she saw for GERD) found that Molly’s zinc level was low. I wondered how that could be since I am religious about giving her a daily multivitamin. It turns out that commonly prescribed chewable multivitamins with fluoride (like Poly-Vi-Flor)—which our pediatrician prescribes because our water supply isn’t fluoridated—don’t contain zinc. And it turns out that zinc is necessary for a host of things, like immune function, wound healing … and growth. Recent studies have shown that zinc deficiency is linked to short stature.
The Beef Connection
It also turns out that our bodies more easily absorb zinc from animal sources—like beef—than from plant sources, and whole grains actually interfere with zinc absorption. So, even if your child’s favorite cereal and the bread with which you make her sandwiches are fortified with zinc, if her multivitamin doesn’t contain the mineral, she could still be deficient. To make matters worse, our bodies can’t store zinc, so we need a continuous supply every day.
Molly’s drop in height percentile coincided almost exactly with her giving up meat. She used to love hamburgers as much as your average truck driver, but when she learned where they came from, she gave them up cold turkey. Speaking of turkey, when she got a Webkinz version of the Thanksgiving bird, she wanted to be done with poultry, too. I forced her to eat it sometimes, but I wasn’t vigilant. After all, haven’t we been bombarded with media reports telling us how much healthier a plant-based diet is than the typical, meat-based Western diet? Eating too much animal protein has been linked to everything from heart disease to colon cancer. And Molly was an otherwise good eater: She ate plenty of bean dishes, drank the amount of milk recommended by her pediatrician, and loved fruits and vegetables. So if she wanted to keep the meat to a minimum that was fine by me.
The Vitamin Solution—>
The Vitamin Solution
After I learned she was low in zinc and that animal proteins were the best sources, I knew we had to reconsider her dietary choices. I explained the situation to Molly, now a (semi-) logical 8-year-old. She still won’t really eat red meat, but she’s back on poultry, and I’ve been giving her a zinc supplement daily for nearly a year now. She went back to the doctor a couple of months ago, and she had grown 2.5 inches in a year and was now up to the 7th percentile. That might not seem impressive to most of you, but for the past three or so years, she’d been growing only a little over an inch annually, and let me tell you—the 7th percentile (equivalent to an adult height of almost 5’1’’) is exponentially better than below the 3rd with a projected adult height of 4’10”. (She’d be in a booster seat until she was a teenager!) We had her zinc levels retested, and she was right on target.
Whether your child is a fellow munchkin or the Jolly Green Giant, you might want to take a look at your kids’ multivitamin. New Jersey kids can be particularly at risk of not having enough zinc because the majority of municipalities in our state don’t have fluoridated water. That causes pediatricians to prescribe multivitamins with fluoride, like the one Molly takes, which doesn’t contain zinc.
If the water where you live isn’t fluoridated (you can find out by contacting your water company) and your children’s pediatrician recommends multivitamins with fluoride, consider one of two things:
- Ask the doctor if she can prescribe fluoride tablets instead, and give them in conjunction with an over-the-counter vitamin that contains zinc.
- Give your kids the multivitamin with fluoride that your pediatrician prescribes but also give them a zinc supplement if the vitamin she prescribes doesn’t contain it (of course, check with the doctor first!). Make sure the supplement is specifically for children. The one I give to both my kids is Animal Parade’s Kid Zinc, a lozenge that comes in animal shapes, which they love.
Of course, some parents opt to forgo the extra fluoride altogether. (Here is a good article about the pros and cons of supplemental fluoride, with a New Jersey spin). Wherever you stand on the debate, one thing is clear: Zinc does a body good.
Zinc in Food
Here is a chart listing zinc food sources. As you’ll see, beef is king (well, really, oysters are—good luck with that), but there are other zinc-rich foods, so don’t go crazy feeding your family red meat for every meal. Research clearly indicates that too much of it is not healthy; but it’s probably not best for kids to avoid it like the plague, either. As a semi-vegetarian myself (I haven’t knowingly eaten red meat in 25 years—though I’ve long suspected that the “vegetarian” chili at a local joint was a little too good to be true), it pains me to say that, but what can you do? As you’ve probably experienced a hundred times over, becoming a parent does strange things to you!