Most children get adequate amounts of zinc from their diets, so there is little need for concern. Vegetarian children can be at risk for zinc deficiency, and households with inadequate food supply may also offer too little zinc for children's diets. Zinc deficiency and its less-common opposite, a diet too high in zinc, can affect children physically, which can in turn affect their behavior.
Both too little and too much zinc can cause stomach troubles such as nausea and diarrhea, which can alter children's behavior, making them appear sluggish, uninterested in normal activities, or secretive about their bathroom habits, especially in teens who tend to be embarrassed by these symptoms. For both boys and girls ages 4 to 8, the National Institutes of Health recommends at least 5 mg of zinc per day, but no more than 12 mg. Children ages 9 to 13 need at least 8 mg daily without exceeding 23 mg. Teens age 14 to 18 do best when they get at least 11 mg for boys and at least 9 mg for girls, with an upper limit of 34 mg for both genders.
A lack of adequate zinc can slow down mental and physical growth, so your young child may have trouble concentrating or grasping new concepts in school, while adolescents may experience delayed puberty. Children experiencing any of these symptoms may also start acting out, getting in trouble due to frustration, or feeling left behind their classmates. These symptoms are commonly associated with other causes as well, so have your child checked out by a pediatrician before assuming zinc deficiency is the culprit.
If you suspect a zinc deficiency, the best way to give your child more zinc is through foods naturally high in zinc. These foods also contain other important nutrients and may be easier for your child's body to absorb than a supplement. Beef, pork and dark meat chicken are naturally high in zinc, as are many nuts, dairy products and beans. It will take time for effects of a long-term zinc deficiency to go away, so monitor your child's symptoms and behavior closely with the help of your pediatrician. You'll need to continue ensuring a zinc-fortified diet even after any behavior issues are resolved.
Serve chicken drumsticks with baked beans, a lightly cooked vegetable, and a salad with a few chickpeas tossed in to give your child a zinc boost. For breakfast, try a low-fat fruit-sweetened yogurt with some instant oatmeal, also a source of zinc, stirred in. Fortified dry cereals also usually contain zinc, making them a good start for your child's day. For lunch foods, use hummus, a paste made from chickpeas, as a sandwich spread instead of mayonnaise or mustard. Offer a handful of cashews or almonds as a snack, along with a few cubes of Swiss cheese. A hearty soup of beef and kidney beans can add zinc on a cold winter's day, while a treat of shellfish like crab or lobster, if your kids will eat them, offers high quality zinc and essential fatty acids for special occasions, especially for older kids who are less likely to turn up their noses at seafood.