With 1 in 4 Canadian diets low in zinc, zinc deficiency is something that should be on everyone’s radar. Populations that are especially vulnerable to deficiency include vegans, vegetarians, kids, pregnant ladies and breastfeeding moms. I’ve included some top recommendations and tips on how to get enough zinc for vegans and vegetarians and anyone else who thinks they may be at risk.
The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian and vegan diets is likely to be less than that of non-vegetarian diets. Plant foods rich in zinc, such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, are also high in phytic acid, an inhibitor of zinc bioavailability (1). While vegans and vegetarians are more at risk for zinc deficiency, the wider Canadian population is also at risk, likely related to the depletion of this important mineral from our soils. Read on to find out more on how we can maximize our absorption of this important mineral.
Why Do We Need Zinc?
Zinc and Our Health
Zinc’s role in human health is often underestimated; zinc is needed for numerous aspects of cellular metabolism and is required for the activity of approximately 100 enzymes. Zinc has a strong role in immune function, as well as protein synthesis, wound healing, and DNA synthesis. Its role in allowing our body to use dietary protein as a building block for the regeneration of muscles is also so important.
Zinc In Pregnancy and In Children
Zinc is crucial at times of growth and reproduction and is therefore extremely important for normal growth during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence. Zinc deficiency in pregnancy can be dangerous and has been linked to higher odds of miscarriage, preterm delivery, stillbirth, placental inflammation, neural tube defects, and low birthweight (2). There is also concern that a low zinc status during pregnancy can carry over to the child, and predispose them to long-term health issues.
What Are The Symptoms Of Zinc Deficiency?
Some symptoms of zinc deficiency include but are not limited to;
- Loss of taste
- Poor wound healing
- Retarded growth
- Loss of appetite
- Impaired immune function
- Delayed sexual maturation
- Hair loss
- Impotence and hypogonadism in males
Many of these symptoms are non-specific and often associated with other health conditions – therefore it is important to seek out a medical professional to ascertain whether a zinc deficiency is present.
Measuring Zinc Status
There are currently no reliable and readily available assessment tools for zinc status. Zinc levels in hair, saliva, and blood can be measured, however, all of these methods have limitations and should be used only with a proper nutrition screening. Plasma zinc is relatively insensitive to several weeks of severe dietary zinc restriction and is therefore not a reliable assessment marker.
How Much Zinc Do We Need?
What Is The Recommended Dietary Allowance For Zinc?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is an average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrients requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy individuals. Current recommendations are:
- Adult males – 11mg per day
- Adult females – 8mg per day
- Pregnant women – 11mg per day
- Breastfeeding women – 12mg per day
Do Vegans and Vegetarians Need More Zinc?
To account for the differences in absorption of plant-based zinc sources versus animal-based zinc sources, it is estimated that vegetarian’s zinc requirements are 50% higher than non-vegetarians (3,4). In one study, inadequate zinc status was found in 47% of vegans compared to only 11% of omnivores, despite the two groups consuming similar concentrations of zinc in their diets (5). The differences in absorption were attributed to phytic acid which can bind to zinc, decreasing its absorption by the body.
Assessment of the long-term effects of vegetarian diets will continue to be difficult because there are no generally accepted, sensitive clinical criteria for marginal zinc status (4).
Who Else Would Have A Higher Zinc Requirement?
Those with a condition that affects the absorption of nutrients in the gut may have a higher zinc requirement. This can include those with celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or an inflammatory bowel disease including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
What Foods Are High In Zinc?
Foods Highest In Zinc
The best and most available sources of zinc are meat and seafood. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food.
How To Get Enough Zinc As A Vegetarian
Vegetarian sources such as beans, nuts, whole-grains, dairy products and eggs are also a good source of zinc. Phytates which are present in whole grains, breads, legumes and nuts inhibit the absorption of zinc by binding to the mineral and increasing excretion from the body. See below for more information on decreasing phytates in food, and my post How To & Health Benefits Of Sprouting Foods for more information on sprouting.
How To Get Enough Zinc As A Vegan
Taking care of the preparation of legumes, whole-grains nuts and seeds are even more important on a vegan diet as all of these zinc sources also contain phytates. Sprouting and soaking help to break down phytate, allowing our bodies increased access to the zinc. See below for more information on maximizing absorption of zinc.
Vegetarian Zinc Food List
Here is a list of some foods containing the highest density of Zinc per 100 calories.
- Aduki beans (cooked, 1 cup) 4.1mg
- Pine nuts (1/4 cup) 3.1mg
- Pumpkin Seeds (1/2 cup) 2.6mg
- Lentils (cooked, 1 cup) 2.5mg
- *Ground beef (2oz/60g) 2.4mg
- Soybeans (cooked, 1 cup) 2.0mg
- Tofu, firm (1/2 cup) 1.3-2.0mg
- Cashews (1/4 cup) 1.9mg
- Wheat germ (2 tbsp) 1.8mg
- Quinoa (cooked, 1/2 cup) 0.8mg
- Mushrooms (cooked, 1/2 cup) 0.7mg
- *Chicken, roasted (2oz/60g) 0.7mg
- Miso (1 tbsp) 0.5mg
- Figs, dried (5) 0.5mg
- *Egg (1 medium) 0.5mg
- *Milk (1/2 cup) 0.5mg
- Mung Bean Sprouts, raw (1 cup) 0.4mg
- Apricots, dried (10) 0.3mg
*animal foods for comparison
Sprouting, Fermenting and Soaking To Increase Zinc
Sprouting Foods To Increase Zinc
Sprouting zinc-rich plant-based foods including lentils and mung beans greatly enhances the ability of our bodies to absorb zinc from these foods. Sprouting breaks down the phytates in these foods, making the zinc more bioavailable.
Fermenting Foods To Increase Zinc
Fermenting zinc-rich foods can help our bodies better access to zinc, and other minerals. The lactic acid formed when making sourdough is thought to aid with mineral absorption from properly fermented bread. Fermentation of soy products, such as with tempeh, also increases the bioavailability of zinc by breaking down the phytic acid.
Soaking Foods To Increase Zinc
Soaking nuts, seeds, and whole grains also help to break down the phytates, which allows our bodies to access the zinc more efficiently Soaking times vary depending on the food. My practices include:
- Soak seeds, softer nuts, and lentils for a minimum of 4 hours (sunflower seeds, pepitas, red and green lentils, cashews)
- Soak harder nuts for a minimum of 8 hours (almonds, hazelnuts)
- Soak larger dry legumes and beans for a minimum of 24 hours (kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas)
How To Get Enough Zinc for Vegans and Vegetarians
If you follow a plant-based diet you may have an increased requirement for zinc due to the lesser bioavailability of zinc from plant-based foods. There are some simple steps you can take to ensure that you are getting the maximum amount of zinc from your diet for optimum health;
- Sprout your lentils and mung beans and add to salads, wraps and sandwiches. See How To & Health Benefits Of Sprouting Foods for more information on sprouting,
- Soak your nuts and whole grains before snacking on them or adding to baking,
- Experiment with fermentation – the lactic acid formed when making sourdough aids with mineral absorption. Fermentation of soy products also increase the bioavailability of zinc such as in tempeh,
- Expand your food horizons with yummy high zinc choices such as tahini, pumpkin seeds and mixed legumes,
- Snack on a trail mix (nuts, seeds, and dried fruit) when you are at work or studying,
- If you don’t think you are getting enough zinc, look for zinc fortified foods or talk to your health professional about supplementation.
References for How To Get Enough Zinc for Vegans and Vegetarians
- Maternal zinc deficiency during pregnancy elevates the risk of fetal growth restriction: a population-based birth cohort study. Scientific reports. 2015.
- Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003.
- Dietary reference intakes for vitamin A, vitamin K, arsenic, boron, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, and zinc. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. 2001.
Rachel Dickens is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University and is currently a PhD student at UBC. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on Indigenous Food Sovereignty while sharing diabetes-friendly recipes and tips for diabetes prevention.