Zinc – why we need it and how to get enough on a vegan diet

Read Time:   |  2nd November 2021

Zinc is an essential nutrient that helps your immune system and metabolism function. Our bodies need a regular supply in order to stay healthy, so make sure you know what the best vegan sources of zinc are so you can ensure you're getting enough.

What is zinc?

Zinc is an essential trace element found throughout the human body.

Although we only need small amounts of it, it is the most abundant mineral in our bodies after iron. As humans, we need a regular supply of dietary zinc to stay healthy.

How does zinc help your body?

Zinc is required for many different processes in the human body. Zinc supports the chemical reactions that help us turn our food into energy, known as metabolism, speeding up over 50 different metabolic reactions in the body1.

Moreover, zinc also regulates gene expression. This is when our DNA is converted into instructions to guide the formation of proteins that make up almost every part of our body tissues and fluid.

In addition, zinc also supports our immune system. Our immune system is an army of cells and defence mechanisms required to fight off bacteria and viruses that may lead to infection.

In pregnancy and early life, zinc is important to assist in proper growth and development. Zinc has also been linked to helping wounds to heal as well as our sense of smell and taste2.

Zinc helps wounds to heal and supports our immune system.

Zinc helps wounds to heal and supports our immune system.

How much zinc do you need?

In the UK it is recommended that women get 7mg and men get 9.5mg of zinc every day.

Zinc cannot be stored in the human body and it is consistently lost through our faeces, skin, hair, and semen in males.

A daily supply of zinc through the food we eat is therefore crucial. Thankfully there are plenty of vegan sources of zinc that can be included in a plant-based diet.

What are the signs of zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency may lead to poor growth, delayed sexual maturation during our teenage years, and male impotence.

Furthermore, zinc deficiency may also lead to hair loss, poor wound healing and skin sores or dermatitis.

Other signs may include loss of taste, weight loss, diarrhoea, and impaired immune function. This in turn leads to increased susceptibility to illnesses such as cold and flu3.

If you have noticed any of these symptoms, visit your doctor to identify whether you have a deficiency. Be aware that these symptoms can have alternative underlying causes which may need to be identified.

Are vegans at greater risk of zinc deficiency?

Research is not consistent on whether vegans are more at risk of a zinc deficiency. There are two reasons why vegans are thought to be more at risk:

  1. Plant foods do not provide large amounts of zinc compared to animal products
  2. The bioavailability of plant sources of zinc is impaired due to the presence of phytates that bind with zinc and reduce absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.4

Due to these reasons, it has been suggested that vegans and vegetarians require up to 50% more zinc in their diet3.

In contrast to this, other studies, including a 2013 meta-analysis, report that vegans only have a slightly lower zinc levels in their blood compared to omnivores which may not be of clinical significance5,6,7.

Whatever diet you follow, it is important to ensure you are including vegan sources of zinc to meet the recommended daily intake.

Balanced vegan diets are linked to the reduction of many metabolic and chronic diseases.

Although there are a few minerals, including zinc, that are less abundant in plants, well-planned vegan diets will provide all the zinc we need without having to turn to animal products8.

Well-planned vegan diets will provide all the zinc we need.

Well-planned vegan diets will provide all the zinc we need.

Want to learn more about plant-based diets? Read these articles next:

What are the best sources of zinc for vegans?

Interestingly, protein has been found to increase zinc absorption and so protein-rich plant foods are a good choices4.

Zinc is found in the outer layer of grains and is therefore removed when grains are refined and processed into white varieties.

This is a great reason to choose wholemeal pasta, wholewheat bread, and brown rice over their white counterparts1.

Vegan sources of zinc

Fortified nutritional yeast flakes pack a punch when it comes to zinc with 6mg per tablespoon. Sprinkle over your next pasta dish, and use wholewheat pasta for an extra 2.2mg of zinc.

Just 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds and 2 tbsp of sunflower seeds sprinkled over your breakfast will provide 3.5mg of zinc. Add a handful of cashews nuts for a further 1.8mg.

Tempeh is a fermented soya product and is a great addition to any diet for protein as well as 1.8mg of zinc per 100g.

If you enjoy quinoa or brown rice dishes, rest easy knowing that you will be getting 1.6mg of zinc with each meal.

Adding grains like quinoa or brown rice to your diet are a great way to add zinc to your meals.

Adding grains like quinoa or brown rice to your diet are a great way to add zinc to your meals.

Other sources of zinc include wholemeal bread, couscous, sesame seeds, baked beans, peanuts, oats, hemp seeds, miso paste, spinach, chickpeas, lentils, mushrooms, walnuts and tofu9.

So as you can see, there are many plant foods that provide zinc, and these are foods that are commonly consumed in whole, plant-based diets.

If you follow a vegan diet, going for whole plant foods over processed foods as much as you can will support your intake of vital nutrients such as zinc.

Should we be taking zinc supplements?

Zinc supplementation is not required for the healthy vegan population as our requirements can be met through a balanced plant-based diet.

Supplementing is not without risk, however. Too much zinc may lead to abdominal pain and gastrointestinal upset including sickness and diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness, lethargy, and anaemia.

Supplementing zinc is not essential as a balanced and well-planned plant-based diet contains all the zinc your body needs.

Supplementing zinc is not essential as a balanced and well-planned plant-based diet contains all the zinc your body needs.

If zinc intake is sustained at a level that is too high, it can lead to reduced immune function, increased cardiovascular risk as well as the impairment of enzymes released from the pancreas that are required to break down food4.

You only need to take supplements if you are found to have a zinc deficiency, or if you have been advised to by a qualified health professional.

In the meantime, enjoy more whole plant foods in your vegan diet to stay healthy and well, and optimise your intake of zinc.

Thought folic acid was something only pregnant people need to worry about? Think again!

Here’s why your body needs folate and where to get it on a vegan diet.

References

  1. mja.com.au/journal/2013/199/4/zinc-and-vegetarian-diets
  2. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2820120/
  3. ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/
  4. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10801947/
  5. patient.info/doctor/zinc-deficiency-excess-and-supplementation-pro#ref-1
  6. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7779846/
  7. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23595983/
  8. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33801269/
  9. Govindji A. 2020. Savvy Vegan. Pavilion Books Company. London.

Written by

Rosie Martin

Rosie Martin

Rosie is a plant-based registered dietitian working both in the NHS and freelance. As a former zoologist working in animal welfare, Rosie turned to a vegan diet in 2014. Having studied and experienced the physical and psychological benefits of a diet based on whole plant food, Rosie now works to support others embrace a plant-based diet for human, planetary and animal health through her business, Rosemary Nutrition & Dietetics. Rosie is also a board member of Plant Based Health Professionals UK.

www.rosemarynutrition.co.uk/

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