Our immune system is designed in such a way that it can fight foreign cells to protect us against various allergies and diseases. As COVID-19 continues its grip on the world, it is repeatedly emphasized to boost immunity through diets or supplements. Besides vitamins C and D, zinc is another nutrient that has been identified as an essential mineral for our immune system. Zinc is associated with many biological functions in the human body and is involved in multiple cellular processes. Zinc is vital for over 300 enzymes in the body, plays a key role in protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. It is also necessary for a good sense of taste and smell. In addition, zinc is a key part of WBC that fights infections.
Ironically, although it is an essential nutrient, the human body cannot produce or store zinc on its own. Therefore, it must be supplemented with a diet. To add to this, a large percentage of Indians have a zinc intake below the levels required for optimal immune function. Zinc deficiency attenuates innate and adaptive immune responses. Zinc deficiencies are evident in oxidative stress, increased inflammatory process and life-threatening situations, as well as premature cell death at the cellular and subcellular levels.
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Foods Rich in Zinc: Food Sources for Zinc:
Zinc is naturally present in food and available as a dietary supplement. A wide variety of foods contain zinc.
Foods of animal origin are the best source of zinc – oysters lead the rankings, with meat and poultry providing the bulk of zinc in developed countries. Plant-based foods are generally low in zinc. The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from non-vegetarian diets. Phytates, found in vegetarian foods like whole grain breads, cereals, legumes, etc. bind zinc and inhibit its absorption. Vegetarians might benefit from using certain food preparation methods that increase the bioavailability of zinc – for example, soaking beans, grains and seeds in water for several hours before cooking or allowing them to sprout; roasting or fermenting foods is also considered beneficial.
Plant-based foods containing a considerable amount of zinc include nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, and seeds, such as sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon seeds; milk and dairy products; whole grains and legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and beans. Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally a poor source of zinc. However, fruits and vegetables containing a comparatively better source of zinc include avocados, pomegranates, guavas and mushrooms, spinach, and broccoli, respectively.
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The majority of Indians eat a grain-based diet, hence zinc deficiency prevalent in the Indian population. Vegetarians sometimes need 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians. The best way for a strict vegetarian is to eat a balanced diet by including vegetarian foods rich in zinc, such as dairy products, whole grains, legumes, etc.
Zinc, through a balanced diet and dietary supplements, is the key to boosting immunity to fight COVID-19. In fact, it would be safe to say that although several vaccines have been developed around the world as well as in India today, they should be taken advantage of as the opportunity arises; at the same time, it is not yet clear whether the immunity induced by the vaccine will be short or long lasting. If the immunity is short-lived, regular booster doses will be needed. That said, stronger immunity to fight infection is the need of the hour, because prevention is always better than cure!
About the Author: Dr Soumitra Das is the Director (South Asia) of Zinc Nutrient Initiative – International Zinc Association
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