Zinc – a mineral crucial for vital reactions in the body, DNA creation, cell growth and reproduction, processing nutrients from food, wound healing, healthy immune system, healthy vision and male reproductive health.
In order for all these things to work properly, we need small amounts of zinc daily but not too much.
Getting the daily dose
The recommended daily intakes are 7-8 mg for women and 9.5-11 mg for men. Why more for men? They use more in body maintenance and also because zinc is vital for healthy sperm so the higher dose accounts for certain losses as well.
It’s not difficult to get your daily zinc dose from plant foods, even though the concentration of zinc in plants varies based on its levels in soil.
On average, the amount of zinc in plants is still sufficient to cover our needs. The best plant sources of zinc include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, oats, wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, other nuts and seeds, and tahini – sesame seed paste.
As you can see, it’s quite easy to include plenty of zinc sources in your diet. As a large population study showed, vegans have more than adequate zinc intakes if their diet is based around whole foods (Rizzo et al., 2013).
You shouldn’t need a supplement, in fact, taking high doses of zinc can be problematic. Too much zinc reduces the amount of copper your body can absorb and because copper is another essential nutrient, you don’t want to block it.
Copper is important for blood cell formation and healthy bones. If you take a supplement with zinc, make sure you’re not getting more than 25 milligrams daily.
At the other end of the spectrum, too little zinc over long periods of time can cause various skin problems, hair thinning, weak immune system, slow wound healing, tiredness, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, mental slowness and impaired vision.
Some people claim that zinc bioavailability from plant wholefoods may be reduced because of phytate – an antioxidant that somewhat inhibits the absorption of zinc and iron from foods.
Phytate is a natural compound found in unrefined grains, seeds and pulses. However, many methods we use in meal preparation reduce the phytate content of plant foods - soaking pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils) and discarding the water before cooking reduces phytate, or, when you buy these canned, it’s already been done for you.
Soaking and fermenting wholegrains and pulses – used in the making of bread or tempeh – also gets rid of substantial amounts of phytate. And good old cooking diminishes phytate content as well (Gupta et al., 2015).
It's a good idea to include multiple sources of zinc in your diet but phytate isn't such a big issue after all. In fact, it’s a valuable antioxidant which helps to protect our digestive tract so having some phytate in your diet may be even beneficial.
Zinc in animal products
Red meat contains zinc and is often recommended as a good source. Whilst steak or lamb chops may cover some of your zinc needs, they also contain high amounts of saturated fat and cancer-causing substances.
Meat-eaters have up to 63 percent higher risk of high blood pressure compared to vegans (Pettersen et al., 2012) and are much more likely to have other heart disease risk factors, such as raised cholesterol and obesity (Matsumoto et al., 2019), increasing the risk of heart disease by 40 percent (Kahleova et al., 2018). Much of this is down to all the saturated fat that meat contains having multiple negative health effects.
Both red and processed meats have also been linked to several cancers including bowel, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer (WHO/IARC, 2015; Wolk, 2017).
According to a large study by Oxford University, if you’re vegan, you have a 19 percent lower risk of developing cancer compared to meat-eaters (Key at al., 2014).
This result corresponds with other scientific studies that show 15-18 percent lower cancer rates in vegans (Huang et al. 2012; Tantamango-Bartley et al., 2013; Dinu et al., 2017; Segovia-Siapco and Sabaté, 2018).
Meat contains more available zinc than plants but also a lot of nasties that seriously harm your health. On the other hand, plant wholefoods contain zinc that you absorb slightly less of but that’s not a problem if you have plenty of zinc-rich foods in your diet. The great advantage of plant zinc sources is that there are no cancer-causing, artery-clogging substances in them – plant foods win by a mile in the zinc race.
Zinc and colds
Zinc is crucial for a healthy immune system. If your daily diet includes good zinc sources, you’re keeping your immune system sharp and ready to defend you from nasty viruses. But what if you catch a cold – would taking extra zinc help?
Research shows that taking zinc as soon as you get the first symptoms can somewhat reduce the duration and severity of the cold (Singh and Das, 2013). It won’t make the cold go away but may result in you suffering a bit less and for a shorter time.
There’s one catch though – taking too much zinc, using nasal sprays or lozenges with it can result in the loss of smell, taste and nausea (Jafek et al., 2004; Alexander and Davidson 2006; Singh and Das, 2013). So proceed with caution.
To make sure you have enough zinc in your diet, try to make a habit out of having at least one generous serving of pulses (beans, lentils, tofu), a couple of servings of wholegrains (wholemeal bread, oats, whole wheat pasta, brown rice) and some nuts and seeds daily.
There’s no need to supplement – a whole food plant-based diet is all you need.
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