“I’ve lost a lot of weight recently and am feeling really good. But now I seem to have lost my senses of smell and taste. What’s going on?”
Loss of smell and taste is a classic symptom of a zinc deficiency. It is becoming increasingly common in children, who tend to be picky eaters. Parents soon find that the only things they will eat are white foods: chicken strips, noodles or french fries, and milk. This is the de facto kid’s meal, and many of our children eat more than a few of these each week. Teens can be sucked into this as well, preferring pasta with cream sauce or processed cheese and soda.
Few people recognize the all-too-common “white diet” as a major red flag for health that results in growth deficits, hair loss, diarrhea, and sexual problems in men. Zinc is essential to the immune response and the growth and maintenance of bone, skin, hair and nails. It is even a factor in good eyesight.
But it does not store up in the body like many metals. Athletes and those who sweat a lot (including menopausal women with night sweats) are subject to zinc loss. Diabetics and others with gastrointestinal problems can have difficulty absorbing enough zinc from their food. Extreme diets can deplete zinc stores, as can alcoholism. Smokers are exposed to high levels of cadmium, which will replace zinc with the toxic mineral. Overeating becomes an issue due to cravings for the flavors of sweet or salty foods. In the elderly, however, the loss of smell and taste can result in weight loss, as food holds little interest.
Even without extenuating circumstances, it is difficult to get enough. Overprocessing of foods and soil depletion have left the standard American diet low in zinc, and the ever-present sugar and white flour inhibit absorption. Breakfast cereals and processed grains leach zinc and other minerals from the body. As zinc depletes, only these simple carbohydrates become digestible. Vegetables contain higher amounts of copper, which balances zinc in the body. As you try to improve your diet with more vegetables. your copper level will rise, increasing the need for zinc. The imbalance will show up as zinc deficiency symptoms. According to The Journal of Nutrition’s study, “Suboptimal zinc and copper status among the elderly may contribute to and/or exacerbate chronic diseases such as heart disease commonly seen with aging “(Mertz et al. 1989).
But how do you recognize the problem before it turns into a clinical deficiency? The most common signs of low zinc are white spots on the fingernails, or misshapen nails. Zinc is required for structural integrity, so wounds may be slow to heal. Colds may become more frequent or severe.
The most efficient and safest way to get zinc in its proper balance with other minerals is almost exclusively through meat. Oysters and beef contain the most, but meats of all types are helpful. Zinc is best absorbed with protein and works in concert with other minerals, so eating a wide variety of whole foods ensures the best availability and absorbability for different body types and needs.
If you feel supplementation is necessary, zinc lozenges can be good to have on hand. They taste good at first, until you’ve had all your body needs. Then they begin tasting like metal. When this happens, just spit it out. Do this several times a day to lessen the duration of a cold or until they no longer even smell good. If you have no sense of smell or taste, it may be wonderful to actually sense this!