Zinc is one of the 7 essential minerals the body needs for optimal functioning. It is a trace mineral, meaning that only a very small amount of it is required for it to do its job. It is a cofactor in a large number of enzymatic processes that enable critical cellular functions to occur. Zinc plays a major role in the creation of DNA, cell growth and regeneration, building proteins, healing damaged tissue, immune function, and digestive health.
Zinc is absorbed into the intestines and, ideally, should be taken with copper to prevent mineral imbalances and to ensure maximum absorption should be taken with food.
Your body does not naturally produce zinc, so you must get it from your food. The richest sources of zinc include beef, poultry, pork, shellfish, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereals. While oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, 20% of the zinc intake in the United States comes from beef, which is likely a matter of palate preferences. While there are some plant-based foods that contain zinc, they have significantly less bioavailability because of the high content of phytic acid, which inhibits zinc absorption. People who do not eat meat or animal products typically need up to 50% more zinc in their daily diet in order to absorb what they require.
Zinc is also available as a dietary supplement that is sold in tablet, capsule, liquid, and lozenge form.
There are a number of factors that determine a person’s daily intake requirement for zinc, including age, gender, diet, and health. Typically speaking, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of zinc is:
A zinc deficiency occurs when a person does not have enough zinc in their body, often as a result of a malabsorption issue. Malabsorption can occur as a person ages, if they have had gastrointestinal issues, are pregnant or lactating, eating a plant-based diet such as vegetarian or vegan, as a result of medication, or lack of zinc-rich foods, among other things.
Some of the signs of a zinc deficiency include brittle nails, hair loss, loss of taste or smell, poor appetite, delayed wound healing, digestive distress including diarrhea, irritability, loss of appetite, and lowered immunity.
Zinc is found in every cell of the body and it helps to enhance immune function, promote wound healing, improve the integrity and health of the skin, aid in nutrient absorption by supporting digestive enzyme production, boost eye health, promote muscle growth and repair, and balance hormones. It also works as a powerful antioxidant, fighting oxidative stress and free radical damage which keeps the body healthy and slows the aging process.
Meat is an excellent source of zinc, as well as other important nutrients such as vitamin B and iron. One 3.5 oz serving of ground beef contains nearly 5 mg of zinc, which is approximately half of the Daily Value (DV) of zinc for men and women.
A 3 oz serving of lamb will provide approximately 45% of the DV of zinc. It is also rich in vitamin B12, riboflavin, selenium, niacin, phosphorus, and iron.
One cup of cooked lentils will provide 11.5% of the DV of zinc for men and 15.9% for women, though they also contain phytates, which reduce the absorption of the zinc. Heating, fermenting, or soaking lentils or legumes can increase their bioavailability and make them a good source of zinc for those eating vegan or vegetarian diets.
Three medium-sized oysters contain 16 mg of zinc, making them the food with the highest zinc per capita, though loading up on oysters every day to meet your DV is probably not going to happen for a number of good reasons. Alaskan King Crab contains approximately 7.5 mg of zinc per 3.5 oz, which is 70% of the DV for men and 95% for women. Smaller shellfish like shrimp and mussels are also good sources of zinc with nearly 15% of the DV for men and 20% for women.
While legumes like chickpeas contain a high amount of zinc, they also contain phytates that reduce its absorption. Heating, fermenting, or soaking legumes may increase the bioavailability of zinc.
One ounce of cheddar cheese contains 9.5% of the DV of zinc for men and 13.1% for women. And who doesn’t like cheddar cheese?
Pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds are excellent sources of zinc and a healthy addition to any balanced diet.
Cashews, almonds, and pine nuts are excellent sources of zinc. They’re also good sources of fiber, good fats, and other vitamins and minerals. They are a healthy, convenient, nutrient-packed snack.
It turns out milk is good food after all. One cup of whole milk provides 9.1% of the DV of zinc for men and 12.5% for women. It is also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D.
One large egg contains approximately 5% of the DV of zinc for men and 6.6% for women. While not packing a hefty amount of zinc, they certainly contribute other nutrients as part of a healthy diet.
While whole grains contain phytates that reduce the bioavailability of zinc, they still offer a number of other health benefits, including B vitamins, iron, selenium, magnesium, and dietary fiber.
Kefir and yogurt are cultured dairy products that are considered to be probiotic foods. One cup of either one provides approximately 10% of the DV of zinc, while supporting a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.
While not all tofu is the same, they do, generally, contain approximately 14% of the DV of zinc. They do, however, contain phytates, which will impact the absorption of the zinc.
Dark chocolate contains 30% of the DV of zinc for men and 41% for women. It might also contain a lot of sugar and be high in calories, but sometimes you just have to say yes to a piece of chocolate. It does have health benefits and it tastes good.
There is no one definitive answer to how long it will take to see the benefits of supplementing with zinc. The variables that would impact that answer include why you are taking it, how long you will take it, and what factors, if any, might impede absorption. If your healthcare provider suggested long-term zinc supplementation, the timing of the results will likely be different than if it is a quick, short-term timeframe. It is important to remember that zinc and copper need to be balanced, especially if you are taking zinc for an extended period of time. Without balancing that ratio, you may end up getting excess or insufficient amounts of either one or both, which could be counterproductive to your supplementation.
Whether or not to supplement is a personal decision that should be made in conjunction with your healthcare provider. It is always ideal to strive to get all of your nutrients from a healthy, well-balanced diet. If that isn’t possible, supplementation could fill the nutrition gap. If you decide to take a zinc supplement, look for a premium product like Care/of’s Zinc Immunity Z. It is a balanced blend of zinc and copper compounds that supports a vegan diet.
If you suspect you are zinc deficient, consult with your physician to determine if you are getting enough zinc in your diet, and whether or not it’s being properly absorbed. If you eat a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet, be mindful of both the amount of zinc you are getting and how much of it is absorbed.
Care/of has an excellent article on The Benefits of Zinc that could serve as a source of information as you decide if zinc supplementation is right for you. As always, if you are pregnant, lactating, or taking daily medications, you should consult with your physician before taking any supplement.