What Is Zinc And Why Should It Be Of Concern To Vegans?

zinc food sources

Zinc is an essential nutrient that our bodies cannot create independently, making it paramount that we obtain it externally from food.
Out of all the minerals found in our bodies, Zinc has the 2nd highest percentage, only being surpassed by iron, making it essential to maintain a consistent daily supply.

Two of Zincs main roles in our bodies is in DNA synthesis and cellular metabolism which means without good old trusty Zinc our cells can’t do their jobs efficiently and go to work sluggish like somebody who only had an hours sleep the night before
Whereas with an optimal amount of Zinc our cells will perform more like a well-organized CEO whos still buzzing from the early morning coffee


Around one-third of the world’s population has a zinc deficiency but this is more prevalent in developing countries and less in the western world.


With Zinc being found in all our cells it ends up being one of the driving forces behind healthy cell growth and cell division which in turn makes it paramount for stable growth through pregnancy and child development.


A lack of Zinc, especially in childhood, can lead to stunted growth and neurological issues making it crucial to have all our zinc bases covered.

benefits of zinc

Benefits of Zinc

Since Zinc is of such high importance no matter, the diet it’s important to know the benefits we gain from having a healthy daily supply.

  • Zinc aids in more efficient and quicker wound healing. 1,2.
  • Can help to decrease inflammation. 3,4.
  • Needed for healthy immune system functioning. 5.
  • Protein synthesis. 6.
  • DNA synthesis. 7.
  • Reduction of disease risk in older adults 8,9.

Which vegan foods have the highest zinc content?

If your current diet isn’t full of many plant-based foods high in Zinc, you can add zinc fortified foods or a plant-based zinc supplement to help create balance, but for those trying to boost Zinc strictly from whole plant-based foods, it’s important to know which ones to choose.

Below are the top plant-based foods that have the highest amount of Zinc per 100g

zinc foods

Plant-based zinc sources

  • Legumes
  • Beans and lentils
  • Grains 
  • Rice and oats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cashews and hemp seeds

For a more in-depth list of the top plant-based zinc sources with nutrient stats and benefits check out our list of the top 15 vegan zinc foods for optimal cellular health 

Not all plant-based foods are created equally, especially concerning Zinc. A significant factor that differentiates one Zinc source from another is the absorption rate. 

Many things can affect how well Zinc is absorbed from a food source, but one of the biggest contributing factors is the number of phytates contained within. 

In most cases, the higher the number of phytates, the lower the absorption rate.

But does a lower absorption rate equate to an inadequate food source?

Add in a table here for zinc food source comparisons

When analyzing the above information, you can see that plants excel in nearly all categories having overall more positives than a flesh source

If looking ONLY at the amount of Zinc that gets absorbed from a serving of a particular food, then yes, you can get more in a serving of oysters then in a serving of nut & seeds but does more mean healthier?

 If looking at the body as a whole and the other nutrients contained in the food source plus the longer-term effects on health, would you still say that a flesh source is better overall?

Absorption is the only category that plants based foods take second place in, so we feel it’s imperative to analyze zinc absorption further to see how significant a lower level of absorption really is for vegans.

Factors that affect zinc absorption

zinc absorption

Phytates

What are these phytates that people keep screaming about anyway?

Phytates are phosphorous compounds mainly found in nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes that are created when the phytic acid contained within the plants bind to other minerals such as Calcium, Manganese, and Zinc.

Add in a table here for phytate levels in plant-based food sources

This binding makes the absorption of the bound mineral challenging to absorb due to our bodies not having the enzymes needed to break down the compound effectively resulting in nutrients being excreted and not being utilized.

Those avoiding phytates due to the fears of it lowering absorption are potentially missing out on many nutritional benefits that phytates provide

Phytates get a bad rep due to absorption concerns, but they actually have many nutritional benefits

  • They are anti-inflammatory. 1.
  • And provide antioxidant benefits. 2
  • Help to prevent cancer. 3.  
  • Protection against osteoporosis. 4
  • Protection against cardiovascular disease. 5

Ways to counteract the phytates in foods to increase the bioavailability

  • Soaking legumes and grains. 6.
  • Fermentation. 7.
  • Germination. 8.  

Using grains or flour that have interacted with yeast while baking can lower phytate levels resulting in higher zinc absorption as the end result 

Minerals and vitamins that affect zinc absorption

Nutrients that increase zinc absorption (co-factors)

Calcium

Calcium has shown varied effects in different tests dependant on the other nutrients combined with the Zinc

Research shows that calcium supplements on their own show no decrease or increase in zinc absorption.

Calcium has the potential to form compounds with both phytates and Zinc resulting in lower zinc absorption.

BUT when calcium and Zinc were consumed with high phytate meals, the phytate would bind more to the calcium leaving more Zinc available then if the calcium wasn’t there.

Calcium in regards to Zinc is complicated, but the overall research shows calcium’s effect on Zinc to be minuscule with a slight positive bias

Protein

The amount of protein in a meal has a significant impact on zinc absorption. Studies show that the more protein in a meal the more Zinc is overall absorbed.

Picking high protein sources with moderate to low phytic acid is better for zinc absorption then food sources with low protein but similar phytic acid levels 

Vitamin c

Vitamin c and Zinc may work well together to help deal with the common cold. But vitamin c (ascorbic acid) has not been shown to increase or decrease zinc absorption.

Nutrients that can reduce zinc absorption

Iron

It can cause a potential decrease in zinc absorption but only when the ratio of iron to Zinc is extremely high.

Results showed for iron to have a significant effect on zinc absorption the ratio of iron to zinc needs to be very high since even at a 25:1 ratio of iron to zinc absorption rate change was minimal to none.

Magnesium

High levels of Zinc tend to affect magnesium absorption. Zinc intake above 142mg a day has a significant effect on magnesium absorption, but when zinc and magnesium levels are kept moderate (around the RDA) the effects on zinc absorption are minimal.

But how much Zinc do we need?

The recommended daily amount for healthy adults according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is 11mg for males and 8mg for females. 

The vegan society recommends 7mg for women and 9.5mg for men

The European Food Safety Authority gave a range of 6.2-10.2mg for women (on average) and 7.5-12.7mg for men (on average)

This factored in phytate levels that ranged from 300-1200mg a day to come to this range.

With a balanced diet consisting of a boatload of plants, it’s logical to conclude most healthy vegans will be on the higher end in terms of phytate intake, which would mean the higher range number given by the EFSA are more likely to apply. 

This would also line up with the National academies of sciences, engineering and medicines recommendation for Vegans and vegetarians to intake 1.5 times the recommended dose of Zinc.

Other factors that may affect how much Zinc we require

Age

Through childhood, our zinc demands are quite low for both boys and girls at around –3mg

As we grow from infancy to teenagers, the amount more than doubles from 2-3mg to 8-11 mg. 8-9mg for women and 11mg for men. 

These numbers stay relatively stable through to adult age, but the numbers rise for women during pregnancy and lactation.

Exercise and athletic performance

  • Intense exercise has been shown to affect zinc metabolism
  • But as of now, there appears to be little evidence to show that increasing Zinc over the recommended daily amount will improve athletic performance
  • A zinc deficiency, however, has the possibility to lead to a decrease in athletic performance due to increased brain fog, and potentially decreased cognitive function.
  • Severe zinc deficiency can affect muscle function which can also result in lower performance output.
  • Based on the research the vegan athlete may be slightly more susceptible to zinc deficiency than a sedentary vegan, but as long as you aren’t deficient, there appears to be no evidence to show that exceeding the higher limit given by the EFSA of 10.2mg for women and 12.7 for men would enhance performance.

With the general consensus from the central food authorities being that vegans should intake around 1.5 to 2 times the amount of Zinc compared to the RDA given for non-vegans this will put female adults at about 12-16 mg and men at 15-20mg this may sound like a lot but what does this look like in reality?

Zinc meal examples

We will analyze different approaches to hitting the zinc RDA for vegans on a 2000 calorie diet. One example with only whole plant-based foods and one with the use of supplements or fortified foods

  • Examples (without supplements)
    • Breakfast
      • Oats 76g
      • Blueberries 68g
      • Almond milk 262g (1cup)
      • Poppy seeds 18g 
      • Banana 100g
        • 559 calories/ 19.3g protein/ 16g fat/ 90.3g carbs/ 5g zinc/ 15.5mg vitamin C
    • Lunch (salad)
      • Roasted pumpkin seeds 28g
      • Sweet red bell peppers 119g
      • Quinoa cooked 185g
      • Lupin beans cooked 166g
      • Spinach 30g
        • 586 calories/ 41.3g protein/ 14.4g fat/ 78.4g carbs/ 7.7g zinc/ 162.3mg vitamin C
    • Snack Example
      • Dried peaches 28g
      • Dried sesame seeds 35g
        • 268 calories / 7.2g protein / 17.5g fat / 25.6g Carbs/ 2.9mg zinc/ 1.4mg vitamin C
    • Dinner
      • Firm Tofu 139g
      • Broccoli 156g
      • Cooked wild rice 185g
      • Cooked shiitake mushrooms 145g
        • 536 calories/ 37.9g protein/ 13.7g fat/ 78.3g Carbs/ 7.5mg Zinc/ 101.9mg vitamin C
  • Example with supplements
    • Favorite Vegan protein shake
    • Banana
    • Orange juice/Almond milk 
    • Vegan zinc supplement 15mg Zinc
      • 498 calories/ 35.1g protein/ 18.8g fat/ 59g carbs/ 2.5mg+15mg supplement = 17.5mg/ 19.6mg vitamin C

As you can see from the above examples combining only two meal examples can easily get you to your minimum zinc requirement, and for the extra boost, you can add a snack or supplement. These examples are mainly to show that with a balanced diet and knowledge of nutrition, you can hit your recommended daily amounts for essential nutrients with ease. 

Zinc Deficiency vs Excess

signs of zinc deficiency

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?

Zinc is crucial to maintaining healthy cells and efficient cellular processes, so it is critical we stay aware of the signs that can show up when we are nearing deficiency.

  • Some symptoms to look out for:
    • Slow growth. 1,2
    • Weak immune system. 3,4.  
    • Loss of appetite. 5
    • Taste issues. 6.
    • Brain fog. 7
    • Unstable blood pressure. 8.

Methods of gaining more Zinc

Other than eating more plant-based foods high in Zinc and using specific nutrients and preparation methods to enhance absorption, there are two extra things we can add to our nutritional arsenal to keep Zinc in check.

Zinc fortified foods

  • Fortified cereals
  • Fortified milk and yogurts (almond, soy, cashew)
  • Fortified juices (orange, tropical)

Zinc supplementation 

Due to the bioavailability of Zinc from plants being less than the Zinc found in animal flesh, it’s paramount that vegans and vegetarians find ways to make sure their zinc intake is kept at optimal healthy levels. Plant-based Zinc supplements with a high absorption rate that provides the RDA are an excellent way for vegans to make up for any low levels of Zinc in their bloodstream and still reap all the incredible benefits that come from a plant-based diet.

Primary forms of Zinc that you want to look for

There are many forms of Zinc in both organic and inorganic forms, but the main ones we want to look for in a vegan zinc supplement are zinc picolinate and zinc bis-glycinate

Yes they may sound like a funky cocktail from a futuristic sci-fi show, but they are simply forms of Zinc bound to different acids that our bodies absorb very well

Zinc gluconate is a form you may see a lot since it is the cheapest to use, but if your aim is high bioavailability, then zinc picolinate and bis-glycinate are your top choices.

Potential issues with zinc supplementation

You always want to stay in the recommended ranges for zinc intake to avoid toxicity or overdose

Excess zinc supplementation can lead to other mineral deficiencies like magnesium and copper since they all compete for absorption in the stomach

If used correctly, zinc supplements for vegans can be a great addition to a balanced diet to keep your zinc levels intact

Check out the best zinc supplements for vegans to find a quality plant-based zinc product that works for your specific needs.

Can you have too much Zinc in your diet?

The upper intake limit of Zinc for adults according to the National Academic of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is 40mg a day

This does not mean that we need to be hitting these levels daily but that this limit has been shown to still be safe in the majority of individuals.

Exceeding these levels can cause potential issues which anyone striving for optimal health should be aware of

Symptoms of excess Zinc

  • Stomach issues
  • Nausea, vomiting 1.
  • Stomach cramps. 2
  • Appetite loss. 3
  • Headaches. 4.
  • Diarrhea. 5.

Excess Zinc can also lead to a potential copper deficiency due to both minerals competing for absorption during digestion.

*If you encounter any of these symptoms always consult your doctor*

Conclusion (key takeaways)

  • Zinc is an essential nutrient needed for all cellular processes and efficient cellular metabolism
  • For vegans, it can be found in all plants but has its highest contents in nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes
  • The downside to these foods is the amount of phytic acid within
  • Phytic acid binds to essential nutrients forming phytate compounds which end up causing an overall lower absorption rate
  • BUT this doesn’t mean to avoid them
  • Phytates have many positive benefits and should have a place in every vegan’s diet
  • Soaking foods high in phytates can make the nutrients easier to absorb
  • But increasing the amount of the overall food so that you make up for the lower absorption rate is the most optimal choice
  • Alongside soaking some of your favorite beans and nuts from time to time to lower phytic acid levels
  • This way you get all the benefits of your healthy plant-based foods safely hit your RDA and also get the disease-fighting benefits of phytates
  • On a well planned and balanced diet zinc should not be a major issue, but knowledge of food sources and preparation methods is important
  • The American dietetic association acknowledged the viability of non-meat diets and the benefits that can be gained but made a point to state that more knowledge is needed by the public to do things accurately and that it would majorly help if there were more restaurants serving vegan/vegetarian options.
  • Luckily for us, vegan restaurants are popping up everywhere, and most non-vegan restaurants now have vegan options to fill the growing need of people that would prefer to choose a plant-based option.

This article was created in the hope that we can provide that relevant information based on actual data to guide those who want to incorporate more plants into their diet and especially understand the best way to take advantage of the multitude of zinc sources available through plant-based means

We hope at the end of all of this you feel more like a zen zinc master and feel empowered with the knowledge that helps bring more nutritional balance to your diet for the long term.

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