Zinc Rich Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Zinc is an underestimated mineral, needed for many important roles in our body. Apart from being directly used by the body for many purposes, zinc is also an important co-factor, meaning it is an ingredient needed for other nutrients to do their job. For example, zinc plus B6 is needed by the body to make hormones and neurotransmitters (body chemicals that keep us happy).
Without zinc we cannot properly absorb B vitamins. Zinc is also part of 25 different enzyme processes used in digestion and the repair and regeneration of tissue cells. Without zinc we couldn’t break down carbohydrates or proteins.
Zinc is essential for our cellular growth and repair. It’s needed for the proper development of the reproductive organs and is especially important for the prostate gland in men. Zinc deficiency is one of the biggest contributors to prostate issues and low-quality semen production for male fertility.
Zinc has an important role to keep our immune system working properly to fight off colds and flues and other infections. A classic combination for infections is zinc with vitamin C. Zinc with the herb ‘horseradish’ is used to help clear mucus build-up associated with sinus and cold or flu.
Zinc is also important for healing wounds and burns through its role in immune support. It is also required for the synthesis (making) of DNA, the master substance of life which carries all our genetic inherent traits. Zinc also directs the activity of each cell.
Approximately 90% of the zinc in our body is stored in muscle. Some of the other areas containing zinc include the liver, pancreas, kidneys, bones, eyes, prostate, skin, hair and even toenails.
A high intake of calcium (especially from calcium supplements) and phytic acid, an enzyme inhibitor found in grains, can prevent the absorption of zinc from our diet and zinc supplements. High copper can also block zinc as it is considered an antagonist (blocker). If you have an excess of copper in your body, then a practitioner may prescribe high doses of zinc to help push the copper out.
Conversely, a high intake of zinc can interfere with copper utilisation and thereby affect iron metabolism, because iron needs copper to be absorbed. When zinc is added as a supplement, then vitamin A is also needed in larger amounts. I know this sounds confusing, but the point is that if you are using supplements, you definitely need an experienced practitioner to guide you with dosages and compatibilities of nutrients.
When you eat a variety of foods each day, nature provides a balance of nutrients. In nature it is rare to find foods with an excessively high amount of any one nutrient.
Zinc deficiency can retard the growth of children, delay their sexual maturity, and prolong the healing of wounds. A deficiency of zinc, copper, and vanadium may increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Zinc deficiency is said to result in stretch marks on the skin, white spots on the fingernails, brittle nails, lacklustre hair, hair lacking pigment, irregular menstruation, impotence in men, and painful knees and hips in teens. It is said that chronic zinc depletion can also predispose the body to cancer.
Cadmium is a toxic mineral which plays an important role in zinc deficiencies because cadmium will be retained and stored in the body if there is a deficiency of zinc as they have similar molecular structures. This can be reversed by taking additional zinc, which means that cadmium can be pushed out of the body with the aid of zinc. A health practitioner can organise a hair analysis for you to see if you have an imbalance of metals and minerals.
Low levels of zinc have been found in people with alcoholic cirrhosis, other liver diseases, ulcers, heart attacks, cystic fibrosis, and in women who take the oral contraceptive pill. Pregnant women with nausea are often found to be low in zinc and taking zinc and B6 may help with ‘morning sickness’. Excessive zinc excretion has been noted in people with Hodgkin’s disease and leukaemia.
A zinc deficiency is characterised by abnormal fatigue, loss of taste sensitivity and suboptimal growth. The zinc deficient person has poor circulation and a tendency to faint easily, as well as be more prone to shock, have excessive bleeding, and delayed wound healing.
Zinc helps to eliminate cholesterol deposits and promote the rapid healing of wounds and injuries to arteries. Zinc is beneficial for diabetics due to its effect on insulin.
Protein foods and pumpkin seeds are the best sources of zinc, with good amounts found in oysters, all seeds, organ meats, mushrooms, and eggs.
Healthy immune system
Zinc has an amazing ability to use its electrical charge (all metals and minerals have an electric charge) to attach to receptors (like parking spaces) in our nasal skin cells (called epithelial tissue) which blocks viruses and bacteria from attaching to the mucus membranes of our respiratory airways. Hence zinc has a direct anti-viral and anti-bacterial effect, which reduces our chances of getting sick.
If you are already sick with a virus or bacterial infection, taking extra zinc has been shown to reduce the symptoms and duration of illness faster than if you didn’t have extra zinc. Zinc can also prevent mucus from building up in respiratory passageways. Mucus is where bacteria can live and thrive in a moist damp environment, so anything that creates mucus and damp environments will increase the risk of infection through this pathway. This includes mucus forming foods like dairy products, gluten, and any foods you may react to.
Without zinc (and B6) we simply cannot make hormones. Zinc is super important for all hormonal and fertility requirements. Zinc is not only needed for female sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, but it is also involved in the production and release of eggs from ovaries (ovulation). Guys need zinc to have enough testosterone and to also support their prostates to remain healthy.
Zinc not only helps guys to produce testosterone, but also it also aids in the release of growth hormone and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1). All three help to build muscle mass and support healthy metabolism.
Zinc acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mineral that can help us to ward off the effects of oxidation. Oxidation is a natural by-product when our body clears toxins and it can have detrimental effects on our body if not cleared by anti-oxidants. Zinc helps to support healthy cell division and replication as part of constant cellular renewal which helps to prevent cancerous cell mutation and cellular aging.
Healthy vascular system
Because zinc has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it also helps to keep our vascular system healthy by lowering the oxidative stress on our cells within the cardiovascular system. The cells that line the blood vessels need zinc to prevent cholesterol levels from building up and clogging our arteries to give us healthy circulation.
Healthy blood glucose
As mentioned, zinc helps us to make hormones. Another hormone that zinc is needed for is insulin. Insulin helps to keep our blood glucose levels normal and balanced. Zinc binds to insulin so it can be stored in the pancreas and released as needed when glucose goes into the bloodstream. Zinc also helps insulin use glucose for fuel instead of being stored as fat. Low zinc and high blood glucose can make it easier for us to get fat.
Healthy digestion and digestive system
Zinc helps the body to break down carbohydrates into glucose for energy and protein into amino acids to build and repair our bodies cells and tissues. With low zinc we can have poor energy levels and poor metabolism. Zinc is also used to repair the cells of the digestive system. The cells that line our intestines are fast turn-over cells and require zinc to keep this replication happening.
Without adequate zinc we risk leaky gut syndrome, and if you have leaky gut, you need more zinc to help in the repair and re-building process. Different types of supplemental zinc are needed for different purposes. One type of zinc called zinc carnosine is the best form of zinc for digestive repair, but other forms of zinc are used for different functions. The zinc from food is also awesome.
A healthy liver = to live r little longer. 🙂
Our liver has many roles including the detoxification of harmful substances and by-products of metabolism, and the conversion of hormones and neurotransmitters. Zinc’s ability to support the immune system and be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, helps the liver to do its jobs properly by reducing the oxidative stress load that these processes and toxins create.
- Food cravings for sweet or salty foods
- Decreased sense of smell and taste
- Behavioural issues or mood swings
- Digestive issues
- Poor immunity or wound healing
- Hair loss or thinning
- Abnormal fatigue
- Fertility issues for both men and women
- Hormonal imbalances such as PMS or increased menopause symptoms
- Poor memory, focus and concentration
- Poor circulation
- Dizzy spells, feel like fainting
- Nerve disorders
- White spots on fingernails
- *Morning sickness (whether pregnant or not)
*It is common for those who have a zinc deficiency to feel nauseous in the mornings even if not pregnant. This is very common in children. Interestingly, taking certain vitamins, particularly B group vitamins with zinc can make some people feel nauseous, especially if taken on an empty stomach. Taken with food, especially protein foods, seems to alleviate this for most people.
Following is the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc. The amounts are expressed in milligrams. A milligram = 1,000th of a gram. This list is really the bare minimum required.
- 0–6mths: need 2mg
- 7–12mths: need 3mg
- 1–3yrs: need 3mg
- 4–8yrs: need 5mg
- 9–13yrs: need 8mg
- Males 14+: need 11mg
- Females 14 to 18yrs: need 9mg
- Females 19+: need 8mg
- **Pregnant women: around 15mg
- ***Breastfeeding women: need around 12mg
**During pregnancy, the requirement for zinc is much higher because the mother needs more folate for birth defect prevention, and folate can interfere with the absorption of zinc which can create a zinc deficiency. It is best to avoid using the synthetic folic acid and use a more active form (under the guidance of your health professional). For more information about this, please visit the Folate (B9) Rich Diet and speak to your health professional for guidance.
***Increasing zinc intake does not increase the amount of zinc in breast milk. The amount that goes into the baby seems to be regulated by the mother’s body for reasons unknown at this point.
It is best to take zinc and B vitamins after foods, preferably protein, to alleviate or prevent nausea. If you feel sick after taking supplements and you have already eaten, sometimes chewing a few nuts (if suitable) can help to settle things. Otherwise getting your zinc from foods prevents this problem. Check with your practitioner that this will be enough for your needs.
Even though the above RDA doses show quite low levels needed for the body, it is common for practitioners to prescribe much higher doses therapeutically for certain reasons. Even children are given doses of 50mg at times, and adults can be prescribed up to 200mg for short duration for particular conditions. Always have your supplements prescribed by your health professional. Never self-prescribe.
There are also different types of zinc that help support different types of conditions. What is available over the counter is often not the same as zinc that is obtainable from practitioners. When zinc is prescribed, your levels of nutrients need to be monitored to ensure a balance is maintained, which is vital for good health.
Zinc deficiency is extremely common around the world because people have digestive issues like leaky gut, poor absorption or various health conditions that rob the body of zinc, and because many people simply do not eat enough of the foods that contain zinc. Another reason for zinc deficiency is that many diets are high in copper which can push zinc out of the body and create an imbalance. It is rare to have copper deficiency, but very common to have zinc deficiency.
Because many grains contain phytic acid that inhibit the absorption of zinc, those that eat a high carb diet or a diet with lots of processed foods are at risk of being zinc deficient. High carb type diets are replacing the protein foods that are naturally high in zinc.
Vegans and vegetarians run the risk of being deficient in zinc because the highest sources of zinc are from animal and seafood proteins. Also, most vegetarian and vegan foods are naturally high in copper, which can affect the absorption of zinc. It is possible to get enough zinc from a vegan diet, but only by choosing foods high in zinc, such as pepitas, and to avoid foods high in copper, such as soybeans and chocolate.
Following are some foods rich in zinc, showing the weight of the food and the quantity of zinc in milligrams. This list of foods can be used in conjunction with the above RDA’s. You can see that it is reasonably easy to maintain the minimum daily recommended levels of zinc from food (except for vegans and vegetarians).
- Oysters: 1 = 9mg
Oysters are by far the richest source of zinc in any food, particularly in such a small package. Most adults need around 10mg of zinc per day; a small can of smoked oysters contains about 30mg of zinc and 8mg of iron. The weight of oysters varies around the world; the above measurement is based on a single 1oz/28g oyster.
- Chia seeds: 3½oz/100g = 4.5mg
- Cashews: ½ cup = 4mg
- Lamb: 3oz/85g = 3mg
- Pumpkin seeds/pepitas: ½ cup = 3.2mg
You can make veggie patties with veggies, cashews, chia seeds and ground pepitas for a zinc rich vegan meal
- Grass-fed Beef: 3oz/85g = 2.6mg
- Chickpeas/Garbanzo beans (cooked): 1 cup = 2.5mg
- Chicken & turkey: 3oz/85g = 1mg
- Eggs (medium): 1 = 0.6mg
- Mushrooms: 1 cup = 0.6mg
- Salmon: 3oz/85g = 0.5mg
- Cacao powder: 1 tablespoon = 0.4mg
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.