Making sure you’re getting enough zinc in your diet is important not only for your immune system, but it aids in the balancing of hormones, cell division, helps prevent cancer, is a potent anti-ager, and is required for optimal physical performance and proper functioning of red and white blood cells.
And because this mineral is not stored in your body for long periods of time (unlike fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K), you must obtain it through foods or supplements.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is an essential trace mineral, meaning our bodies cannot produce or store it.
It regulates the activity of over 100 different enzymes in the body, playing an essential role in immune function , protein synthesis , wound healing , DNA synthesis and cell division . Zinc is also required for the proper sense of taste and smell .
Zinc is found naturally in both plant and animal products.
Most food guides and websites online will tell you that zinc is mostly available in cholesterol and saturated-fat heavy foods like chicken, pork, beef, lamb, liver, cheese, oysters, and other seafood. But these are not the only options.
In fact, there is a wide variety of zinc-rich plant foods. Someone following a plant-based diet could easily get their daily recommended amount of zinc in just one or two meals per day.
What Are the Benefits of Zinc?
As an essential mineral, zinc plays an important role in cellular structure and function. Without it, a lot of things can go awry.
Here are the top 5 benefits of zinc:
1. Immune Function
Zinc is essential for proper immune function. It activates T lymphocytes (T-cells), a type of white blood cell that is central to our body’s immune defenses.
Some of these T-cells are “killer” cells that neutralize pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Others are “helper” cells that help other cells of the immune system against infections or cancer.
In a review of seven studies, supplementing with 80-92 mg of zinc per day resulted in reduced length of the common cold by up to 33%.
Having a zinc deficiency could negatively impact immune function, so much so that it may increase one’s risk of developing chronic disease.
2. Skin Conditions
Zinc is fundamental to skin health. It helps maintain the structure and integrity of the skin, playing a critical role in collagen synthesis.
While about half of the total body zinc is in the bones, the skin contains nearly 6% of total body zinc.
For these reasons, zinc is often used in hospitals for the treatment of burns, ulcers, and other skin injuries. It can also be used topically to treat acne, herpes, and diaper rash .
Both topical and oral zinc treatments can help treat acne by inhibiting the growth of P. acnes bacteria, reducing inflammation, and suppressing oily gland activity.
3. Gastrointestinal Problems
Even moderate deficiencies in zinc can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food in the intestines.
When zinc levels are low, you run the risk of developing gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, which make it even harder to absorb zinc and other nutrients in food.
Therefore, not only can zinc deficiency cause diarrhea but also chronic diarrhea conditions can cause zinc deficiency, thereby promoting even more diarrhea.
4. Reduce Risk of Age-Related Diseases
Zinc may also significantly reduce the risk of age-related diseases like macular degeneration, pneumonia, and other infections.
As with the skin, zinc plays a central role in maintaining the integrity of the macula in our eyes.
Studies have shown that zinc supplementation can help slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration, possibly by preventing cellular damage in the retina.
Other studies have discovered that just 45 mg per day of zinc may decrease infection rates in older adults by nearly 66%.
5. Decreases Inflammation
Zinc has been demonstrated to be an effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent, helping fight oxidative stress, thereby reducing the chance for disease development. As a result, having healthy levels of zinc could help reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
This mineral also helps reduce levels of certain inflammatory proteins in your body.
In a study of 40 older adults, supplementing with 45 mg or more of zinc per day resulted in greater reductions in inflammatory markers than a placebo group.
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
Mild zinc deficiencies are common, mainly in part due to the lack of it in the food we eat. In fact, more than 2 billion people worldwide are deficient in zinc due to inadequate dietary intake.
Severe zinc deficiencies, on the other hand, can occur in people with rare genetic mutations, or in infants who breastfeed from mothers who don’t get enough zinc from their diet. It can also show up in those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol and anyone taking immune-suppressing medications.
Symptoms of severe zinc deficiency include:
- Distorted sense of taste and cravings for saltier, sweeter food.
- Chronic diarrhea
- Impaired growth and development
- Behavioral issues
- Delayed sexual maturity
- Skin rashes
- Nerve dysfunction
- Slow wound healing
More milder forms of zinc deficiency include symptoms like:
- Decreased immunity
- Decreased appetite
- Dry skin
- Mood disturbances
- Slow wound healing
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
24 Zinc-Rich Plant Foods
Here are the top plant-based foods highest in zinc (per 100 grams or 3.5 oz):
- Sesame Seeds (11.16mg, 117% DV)
- Hemp Seeds (11.5mg, 77% DV)
- Pumpkin Seeds (10.3mg, 69% DV)
- Watermelon Seeds (10.2mg, 68% DV)
- Cashew Nuts (5.8mg, 39% DV)
- Sunflower Seeds (5mg, 33% DV)
- Flax Seeds (4.34mg, 29%DV)
- Chia Seeds (3.5mg, 23% DV)
- Chickpeas (1.5mg, 10% DV)
- Shittake Mushrooms (1.33mg, 9% DV)
- Lentils (1.3mg, 8% DV)
- Green Peas (1.2mg, 8% DV)
- Quinoa (1.1mg, 7% DV)
- Parsley (1.1mg, 7% DV)
- Kidney Beans (1.0mg, 7% DV)
- Spinach (0.53mg, 6% DV)
- Cremini Mushrooms (0.52mg, 5% DV)
- Avocado (0.6mg, 4% DV)
- Blackberries (0.5mg, 4% DV)
- Raspberries (0.4mg, 3% DV)
- Dates (0.4mg, 3% DV)
- Pomegranate (0.35mg, 2% DV)
- Bananas (0.2mg, 1% DV)
- Figs (0.2mg, 1% DV)
Should I Supplement With Zinc?
While these foods are among the top sources of plant-based foods highest in zinc, you still may need to supplement.
Your body has tight control over zinc levels, so detecting a zinc deficiency with laboratory tests proves difficult. Even if tests indicate normal levels, you still may be deficient.
Doctors will often consider other factors like poor dietary intake and genetics to determine if you need supplementation.
There are many forms of zinc out there, but the best and most absorbable form is ionic zinc sulfate. With a higher bioavailability, it enters your bloodstream within minutes after ingesting.
Stay away from zinc oxide, which is poorly absorbed.
Zinc Dosage Recommendations
Avoid zinc supplements that contain high concentrations of zinc (unless recommended by a doctor).
The daily recommended intake for zinc is around 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men.
It is recommended to not consume more than 40 mg per day (this is the upper limit – but it is pretty hard to go over this limit).
Ingesting too much zinc can interfere with copper and iron absorption. But even then, hinderance in absorption of these minerals has only been reported in those taking over 60 mg of zinc every day for 10 weeks.
The Bottom Line
Zinc is an essential trace mineral that must come from the food we eat.
It helps keep our immune system strong, reduces inflammation, fights free radical damage and promotes growth and repair.
People with zinc deficiencies can experience many symptoms, ranging from changes in appetite to chronic fatigue, weight gain, slowed wound healing and more.
To fight zinc deficiency, it is important to eat a wide range of zinc-rich plant foods and even supplementing with a mild ionic zinc sulfate supplement.