Zinc is one of those nutrients that doesn’t get much attention, but should. The global prevalence of zinc deficiency is about 30%. Even in developed countries like the US and UK, zinc deficiency rates are at 4-7%. Since plant-based sources of zinc are poorly absorbed, vegans should especially pay attention to this nutrient and know the signs of deficiency.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is a mineral which is essential for all life, including animals, plants, and even single-cell organisms. Some zinc is used to help build proteins and cell membranes. However, zinc mainly acts as a catalyst in the body. This means that it helps trigger chemical reactions. There are over 100 different human enzymes which rely on zinc to function. Zinc is also needed to regulate cell processed like copying DNA.
In humans, high concentrations of zinc are found in the eyes and, in men, the prostate gland. Zinc is also mostly found in the brain, muscles, bones, kidneys, and liver. The body is not capable of storing zinc, so you must have a steady daily supply in order to stay healthy.
Without zinc, the human body would not be able to function on any level. Even a mild deficiency in zinc can result in a vast array of symptoms. The problem is that these symptoms can also resemble symptoms of many other conditions, so diagnosing zinc deficiency on symptoms alone is difficult.
One of the first signs of zinc deficiency is skin problems like rashes or eczema. A lot of anti-dandruff shampoos and skin creams even include zinc in their ingredients for this reason. If you have brittle nails with white spots on them, then this is another sign that you aren’t getting enough zinc. Since zinc is so important for immune function, a deficiency can also mean you will get sick frequently. This is why many cough drops and other cold/flu medicines contain zinc.
If you think you aren’t getting enough zinc, don’t try to self-diagnose. Go get a blood test to check your zinc levels. Over a longer period of time, zinc deficiency could lead to some serious problems like chronic fatigue, poor mental health, and low testosterone in men.
*Weird Zinc Fact: Men can lose up to 15mg of zinc in a single ejaculation! Since one of the symptoms of zinc deficiency is poor vision, maybe that old adage that masturbation leads to blindness has some truth to it! Here are some more weird zinc facts.
How Much Zinc Do You Need?
The Institute of Medicine puts the RDA for zinc at 11mg/day for adult men and 8mg/day for adult women. But, like with calcium and iron, the recommendations are a bit different for vegans because of bioavailability
Most plant-based foods which are high in zinc also contain antinutrients which block its absorption. One group of antinutrients is phytates. The phytates bind with the zinc, preventing it from being absorbed into the body. Foods which are high in phytates include whole grains, seeds, and nuts. These also happen to be the foods where most vegans get their zinc.
One commonly-cited study from the WHO found that people on vegetarian and vegan diets who ate high amounts of grains absorbed only about 15% of dietary zinc. By comparison, people eating meat and fewer grains had a zinc absorption rate of 50-55%.
Other zinc antinutrients include flavonoids (which are a type of plant pigment found in fruits, tea, chocolate, and dry beans, amongst others). Alcohol also acts as a zinc antinutrient, so a lot of alcoholics (and I’d imagine college students also) are zinc deficient.
Because of how poorly vegan sources of zinc are absorbed, some agencies recommend that vegans (and vegetarians) consume 50% more zinc than the general RDA. The Institute of Medicine recommends an even higher amount. They say that vegans should consume twice the RDA of zinc.
This would put the RDA of zinc for vegans at:
- 12-16 mg/day for adult women
- 16.5-22 mg/day for adult men
However, to complicate things further, there is evidence that vegans are able to adapt to the lower bioavailability of zinc by absorbing more of it and excreting less. But a lot more research needs to be done before we can say with certainty that vegans don’t need extra zinc. To play it safe, you might want to shoot for the higher RDA recommended for vegetarians/vegans and to eat lots of zinc superfoods.
There are also some things you can do to increase the absorption of zinc from food. Here are some of them:
- Eat zinc foods with foods containing yeast (such as leavened breads): The yeast destroys much of the phytic acid which would normally inhibit zinc absorption.
- Soaking or sprouting: Soaking or sprouting beans, legumes, seeds and grains will help reduce the phytic acid content in them so more zinc is absorbed.
- Consuming certain acids: Certain types of acids increase the absorption of zinc. These include sulphur-containing amino acids (found in garlic and onions), citric acid (found in citrus fruits like oranges), malic acid (found in apples), and tartaric acid (found in grapes).
- Eat more protein: Consuming protein with zinc can increase zinc absorption. Here are the best vegan sources of protein.
Vegan Sources of Zinc
The best vegan sources of zinc are seeds like sesame seeds, pepitas, quinoa (yes, it is actually a seed), dark chocolate (remember that chocolate comes from the seed of the cacao tree), and nuts. These also happen to be great sources of protein, healthy fats, iron, calcium, and many other nutrients. One of the best things you can do for your health as a vegan is to start eating more seeds. Put them in your cereal in the morning. Sprinkle them on top of salads. Make hummus with lots of tahini. Or just munch on them as a snack.
Whole grains are another good source of zinc since there is a high amount of zinc in the germ and bran parts of the grain. These parts are discarded when making white flour and other processed grain products like white pasta. A really simple way to be healthier is to switch from processed grains to whole grain products.
You know how foods like dark chocolate and oysters (which are obviously not vegan) are considered aphrodisiacs? Well, this is because they are rich in zinc. Since zinc is highly concentrated in the pituitary gland and prostate gland in men, eating zinc foods can boost libido and sexual function!
Zinc Supplements for Vegans
Worried you aren’t getting enough zinc? You should always aim to get nutrients from food first. When that fails, you can use supplements as a backup. Here are some of the top vegan supplements with zinc. You can find more vegan supplements here.