Our immune system is designed in way that can fight off foreign cells to protect us against various allergies and illnesses. As COVID-19 continues its grip the world, it is emphasized time and again to boost immunity through either diets or supplements. Apart from Vitamin C and D, Zinc is another nutrient that has been identified as an essential mineral for our immune systems.
Zinc is associated with many biological functions in a human body and is involved in multiple cellular processes. Zinc is vital for more than 300 enzymes in the body, plays a key role in protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis and cell division. It is also required for proper sense of taste and smell. Besides, zinc makes a key component of WBC that fights infections.
Ironically, despite being an essential nutrient, human body cannot produce or store zinc on its own. Therefore, it needs to be supplemented through diet. To add to it, a large percentage of Indians have a lower intake of zinc than the required levels for optimal immune function. Zinc deficiency dampens innate and adaptive immune responses. Zinc deficiencies are evident by oxidant stress, increased inflammatory process, and life-threatening situations, as well as premature cell death at the cellular and sub-cellular levels.
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Zinc-Rich Foods: Food Sources For Zinc:Zinc is naturally present in the foods and available as a dietary supplement. A wide variety of foods contain zinc.
Animal-based foods are the best source of zinc – oysters top the chart with meat and poultry providing most of the zinc in the developed nations. Plant-based foods are generally low in zinc content. The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than non-vegetarian diets. Phytates, which are present in vegetarian foods like whole-grain breads, cereals, legumes, etc., bind zinc and inhibit its absorption. The vegetarians might benefit from using certain food preparation methods that increase bioavailability of zinc – for instance, soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking or allowing to sprout; roasting foods or fermenting them are also considered beneficial.
The plant-based foods containing considerable amount of zinc, include nuts, like walnuts, almonds, cashews and seeds, like sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon seeds; milk and dairy products; whole grains and legumes, like chickpea, lentils and beans. The fresh fruits and vegetable are generally poor source of zinc. However, fruits and vegetables containing comparatively better source of zinc include avocados, pomegranates, guavas and mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, respectively.
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Majority of Indians have cereal-based diet, hence zinc deficiency is widespread in Indian population. Vegetarians sometimes require as much as 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians. The best way for a strict vegetarian is to have balanced diet by including vegetarian food stuffs rich in zinc, like dairy products, whole grains, legumes, etc.
Zinc, through balanced diet and dietary supplements, is the key to boost immunity for fighting COVID-19. In fact, it would be prudent to say that even if several vaccines have been developed globally as well as in India today, and one should avail it as and when gets the opportunity; at the same time it is not yet known whether vaccine-induced immunity will be short or long-lived. If immunity is short-lived, then one will need regular booster doses. Having said that, stronger immunity to fight the infection is the need of the hour, as prevention is always better than cure!
Author: Dr. Soumitra Das is the Director (South Asia) at Zinc Nutrient Initiative – International Zinc Association
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