Are you getting enough zinc? Let this registered dietitian tell you everything you need to know about zinc, from how much you need, to what zinc does in your body, to a list of vegan foods high in zinc. Especially if you’re vegan or plant-based, you need to know this important mineral!
Good nutrition is NOT supposed to be complicated. Of course, when you’re new to a vegan or plant-based diet – or, you just feel you need a nutrition check in – there are a few nutrients you want to get acquainted with so you can give your body what it needs to thrive. Such as calcium for healthy bones. Or iron for building red blood cells. Or even fibre for a healthy gut and gut microbiome.
Once you know the basics, you can work those food sources into your life and then forget about it. Calcium, iron and fibre are definitely the biggies in plant-based nutrition (I talk more about that in my book Eat More Plants)…but almost no one talks about zinc! So let’s change that.
This post has EVERYTHING you need to know about zinc, so you might find this table of contents handy.
What is zinc?
Zinc is a trace mineral – meaning that you need it in small amounts – that humans need for a variety of different metabolic functions. Minerals are single elements found in nature as opposed to vitamins, which are more complex organic compounds produced by plants, microbes and animals.
How much zinc do you need?
Unlike iron, your body doesn’t store zinc so it’s even more important that you eat foods rich in zinc daily.
The requirements for zinc are gendered; body size is a factor but as you see below, there is a hormonal factor too. Adult men (AMAB) require 11 mg of zinc daily. Adult women (AFAB) require 8 mg of zinc daily. In pregnancy, the requirement is 11 mg and in lactation 12 mg of zinc daily.
As with other minerals on a plant-based diet, it has been suggested that vegetarians and vegans perhaps aim for a 50% higher intake due to bioavailability issues with vegan sources of zinc. However, I find this number rather unattainable – what’s more, we understand that zinc absorption is better with smaller doses of zinc (and when zinc levels are lower) so in practice, I strive for the standard requirement. I don’t recommend reaching for the higher goal unless zinc deficiency symptoms have been identified by someone’s doctor.
What does zinc do in the body?
Zinc has a number of critical structural + metabolic functions in the human body. They include:
- Healthy Skin + Wound Healing: zinc is critical for wound healing and even building collagen in the skin
- Immune Support: the immune system needs zinc for proper function
- Sense of Taste + Smell: yep, zinc is critical for tasting food! In fact, this can be a sign of deficiency
- Eye health: zinc is associated with protection against macular degeneration
- Reproductive Health: zinc is important for testosterone and sperm production
- Growth and Development: zinc is critical throughout pregnancy and childhood
- Building Proteins + Enzymes: the body uses zinc to build internal proteins and support enzyme function
Zinc deficiency is considered uncommon in those who are food secure, meaning they can afford enough food (and a variety of foods) for their family. However, those at risk of zinc deficiency may include people who avoid zinc-rich foods, such as those on a vegan diet who do not pay attention to their zinc intake as well as kids and older adults. Malabsorption or prolonged diarrhea from celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis may also increase risk for zinc deficiency.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include loss of taste or smell, impaired immune function and wound healing, loss of appetite and hair loss. Blood tests aren’t a great indicator because the body tightly regulates blood levels of zinc.
18+ foods high in zinc (Vegan)
Animal foods such as meat, dairy and seafood are the most commonly known sources of zinc. If you are on a plant-based diet, you might wonder where you can get your zinc from…I’ve got you covered with this list of zinc rich foods that just so happen to be vegan!
Zinc rich nuts + seeds
Nuts + seeds are some of the best vegan foods rich in zinc!
- Hemp: 1.8 mg zinc per 2 tablespoons hemp hearts
- Flax: 0.6 mg zinc per 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
- Pumpkin seeds: 2.7 mg zinc per 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
- Cashews: 1.9 mg zinc per 1/4 cup cashews
- Almonds: 1.1 mg zinc per 1/4 cup almonds
Whole grains high in zinc
- Oats: 0.9 mg zinc per ¾ cup cooked oats
- Wheat: 0.6 mg zinc per 1 slices whole grain bread
- Quinoa: 1.6 mg zinc per ¾ cup cooked
- Brown rice: 1 mg zinc per 3/4 cup cooked
Legumes high in zinc
Beans + lentils are excellent zinc rich foods, along with being great sources of plant-based protein!
- Lentils: 1/2 cup cooked lentils has 1.3 mg zinc
- Chickpeas: 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas has 1.3 mg zinc
- Edamame: 1/2 cup cooked edamame (green soybeans) has 0.9 mg zinc
- Baked Beans: 1/2 cup vegetarian baked beans has 3 mg zinc
- Tofu: 1 cup of extra firm tofu has 2.2 mg zinc
Zinc rich fruits + vegetables
Fruits + vegetables don’t have a ton of zinc, but I wanted to share a few options here!
- Kale: 0.4 mg zinc per cup raw kale
- Broccoli: 0.3 mg zinc per cup raw broccoli
- Mushrooms: 0.4 mg zinc per 1/2 cup raw crimini (brown) mushrooms
- Spinach: 0.7 mg zinc per 1/2 cup cooked spinach
- Avocado: 0.6 mg zinc per 1/2 avocado
Other zinc rich foods
- Dark chocolate: a 33 gram portion of 70% dark chocolate has 1 mg zinc
- Cocoa powder: 0.3 mg zinc per 1 tablespoon
- Fortified Breakfast Cereals: many breakfast cereals are fortified with 25% of your daily value of zinc. Check the nutrition facts panel!
How to boost zinc intake on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Whole grains and legumes contain phytates, which are known to limit the absorption of minerals such as zinc and iron. So, does that mean that plants can’t give you the zinc you need? Not at all! Many plant foods are rich in zinc and there are (very normal) ways of preparing plant foods to enhance bioavailability.
The first? Well, cooking. Cooking is known to decrease the hold phytates have on foods. Luckily, we don’t tend to eat grains and legumes raw! Soaking helps too: the practice of soaking dried beans for a day before cooking will improve mineral absorption further.
Want extra points? Try sprouting. I LOVE sprouted grain breads, and sprouting grains helps to deactivate phytates. Love sprouts? Try sprouting legumes, which super charges their nutrient content as well as produces a histamine-crushing enzyme, DAO. Sprouted legumes make a great addition to salads.
What about zinc supplements?
Zinc supplements are popular, particularly due to the research that suggests zinc (at the very first sign of symptoms) may help shorten duration of cold and flu.
The caution with supplements is that they are often sold in high doses (you really don’t want to go beyond – or even get close to – the daily recommended limit of 40 mg long term) and can cause side effects such as nausea. Zinc supplements can also interfere with the absorption of iron and copper. I would highly recommend that you talk to your pharmacist before buying zinc supplements.
I hope this post helped teach you what you need to know about zinc. Anything else you were wondering? Let me know, in the comments!