Zinc in brief
The essential mineral, zinc, has about 100 enzymes that depend on it to promote biochemical reactions in the body. Sounds complicated, right? Basically, zinc plays a role in healthy growth and our body's functioning.
Zinc serves to support immunity, promote wound healing, preserve the sense of taste and smell, promote making DNA, and supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence
Food sources are always recommended first, as opposed to supplements. It's absolutely possible to get all zinc needs solely from food, at the exclusion of any animal products. The recommendations for zinc include:
- Women >19 years: 8 mg/day (pregnant women require 11 mg/day)
- Men > 19 years: 11 mg/day
- Maximum: stay below 40 mg/day from food + supplement combined.
Signs of zinc deficiency may include impaired growth, loss of appetite, and weaker immune functioning. In severe situations, hair loss, diarrhea, impaired sexual functioning, and skin lesions may be experienced. On the other hand, having too much zinc can lead to nausea or vomiting, abdominal cramping, headaches, and diarrhea.
Zinc isn't found in fruits or vegetables, but it's available in grain products, dairy alternatives, and plant-based protein foods. Here are a few plant-based food sources of zinc that could contribute to our daily needs.
2 - 4 mg of zinc per serving
- Wheat germ (2 tbsp)
- Pumpkin or squash seeds, kernels (¼ cup)
- Baked beans, cooked (¾ cup)
- Tempeh, cooked (¾ cup)
1 - 2 mg of zinc per serving
- Plant-based yogurt (¾ cup)
- Plant-based milk (1 cup)
- Bran cereal (¾ cup)
- Wild rice, cooked (½ cup)
- Pine nuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds (¼ cup)
- Lentils, cooked (¾ cup)
- Chickpeas, black-eyed beans, split beans, cooked (¾ cup)
- Sunflower seeds (¼ cup)
- Cashew butter (2 tbsp)
- Tofu, prepared with magnesium chloride or calcium sulphate (¾ cup)
- Soy nuts (¼ cup)
- Tahini (2 tbsp)
- Soyburger (1 patty)
Is zinc a concern?
For vegans or vegetarians, zinc deficiency can be a concern if attention isn't given. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, zinc can compete with calcium, copper, iron and magnesium for absorption. This is only a concern if we're taking mega-doses of one of these minerals, such as from supplements. If we take supplements that only contain a single mineral, this can inhibit the absorption of the other minerals. This would be true for zinc, calcium, copper, iron and magnesium. If taking mineral supplements, try to do so between meals, distanced from when zinc-containing foods are eaten.
Secondly, zinc in certain food sources can be bound to phosphorus in compounds called phytates. This binding makes zinc unavailable for absorption into the bloodstream. To reduce the amount of zinc bound to phytates, we can soak, sprout, ferment, or blend food to make zinc more available for absorption. There is discussed more below.
Thirdly, zinc from plant-based food sources tends to be less easily absorbed compared to zinc from animal-based foods. In general, those of us following a plant-based lifestyle are more likely to become deficient if zinc containing food sources are unknown, or if these foods aren't eaten often. If our body is short on zinc, though, it can more or less adjust by increasing absorption efficiency and decreasing excretion. Nevertheless, It may be beneficial to explore the list of food sources above and to plan meals accordingly to ensure that adequate zinc-containing foods are included.
How to increase zinc absorption
Soaking, sprouting, fermenting and/or blending plant foods significantly increases the absorption of zinc. This isn't only true for zinc, but also for calcium, iron, and magnesium. These traditional food practices have additional other benefits such as removing gas-causing compounds for easier digestion. To learn more about the benefit of soaking nuts, seeds, beans and grains see our soaking article.
- Zinc can be adequately obtained on a well-planned plant-based diet. Supplements aren't necessarily needed
- Try to include a variety of plant-based protein and dairy foods, such as plant-milk, tempeh, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Many of these foods are high in zinc.
- When possible, try to soak beans, lentils, nuts and grains to increase zinc absorption. Sprouting, fermenting, blending and juicing are other methods that help to increase zinc absorption.