Zinc is a nutrient that plays a vital role in immune system response, wound healing, synthesizing proteins and DNA, and many other bodily functions.
The human body does not store zinc, so a person has to get enough from their daily diet. They can also take supplements, if necessary.
In this article, learn about the benefits of zinc and which foods to eat to ensure adequate intake.
Foods high in zinc
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend the following daily intake of zinc:
- males aged 14 and older: 11 milligrams (mg)
- females aged 14 and older: 9 mg
- pregnant women: 11 mg
- women who are lactating: 12 mg
It is well known that of all food types, oysters contain the most zinc per serving. However, most people get their zinc from poultry and red meat.
Food manufacturers may also fortify foods with zinc to help a person meet their daily requirements.
Examples of foods high in zinc include:
- oysters, 3 ounces (oz): 74 mg
- beef patty, 3 oz: 5.3 mg
- Alaska king crab, 3 oz: 6.5 mg
- fortified breakfast cereal, 3/4 cup serving: 3.8 mg
- cooked lobster, 3 oz: 3.4 mg
- cooked pork chop loin, 3 oz: 2.9 mg
- baked beans, 1/2 cup serving: 2.9 mg
- dark meat chicken, 3 oz: 2.4 mg
Other zinc sources in a person’s diet include low-fat yogurt, pumpkin seeds, milk, chickpeas, instant oatmeal, almonds, and Cheddar cheese.
These all contain around 1–2 mg of zinc per serving.
Zinc sources for vegans and vegetarians
Without proper planning, vegan and vegetarian diets can result in deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, iodine, vitamin D, and zinc.
Examples of vegan and vegetarian friendly foods that are high in zinc include:
- nutritional yeast
- wheat germ
Vegetable-based zinc sources are not as bioavailable as animal-based sources, which means that the body does not absorb zinc from vegetarian sources as effectively.
According to 2017 research, a person eating a vegetarian or vegan diet may need to consume 50% more zinc than people who regularly eat animal products.
This means that male vegans and vegetarians may need to eat about 16.5 mg of zinc each day, while females following these eating patterns should eat up to 12 mg per day.
If a person chooses to supplement their diet with zinc, they may wish to avoid taking it at the same time as supplements of calcium, copper, folic acid, iron, and magnesium. This is because these nutrients can affect how the body absorbs zinc.
What are the benefits of zinc?
Zinc plays a role in several bodily functions, including:
- Growth: People require zinc for physical growth and development. Zinc deficiency can result in impaired growth in children and adolescents.
- Immune system function: Our bodies use zinc to build immune system cells called T lymphocytes.
- Enzyme function: Zinc plays a pivotal role in triggering chemical reactions in the body. These include helping the body use folic acid and creating new proteins and DNA.
- Eye health: Zinc deficiency can contribute to the development of eye conditions, including macular degeneration.
- Wound healing: Zinc helps promote healthy skin and mucous membranes, which boosts wound healing.
According to the NIH, most children and adults consume enough zinc. Older adults, however, may not get the recommended intake.
Some of the symptoms associated with zinc deficiency include:
- affected taste and smell
- appetite loss
- hair loss
- impaired immune response
- poor growth
Doctors do not have an easy blood test to determine if a person is zinc deficient. Instead, they will often consider the person’s symptoms and average dietary intakes when determining if they are zinc deficient.
Conversely, a person can also experience zinc toxicity from excess zinc supplementation. However, eating foods high in zinc — even in large amounts — does not usually cause symptoms.
Symptoms of zinc toxicity include:
- appetite loss
- stomach cramps
Zinc is present in many natural foods, and many manufacturers add zinc to foods such as cereals.
Meat based products are usually higher in bioavailable zinc. If a person does not eat meat, they may need to make an effort to increase their zinc intake through eating beans, seeds, and oats, among other zinc-containing foods.
Although zinc deficiencies are rare in the United States, people should always speak to a doctor if they have concerns about their nutrient intake.