When you stop and think about it, your body truly is amazing. Different organs and systems work together for the shared goal of keeping you healthy and able to live your life in the best way possible. Of course, the different processes that allow you to go about your daily life use different fuels. In other words, different organs need different nutrients to thrive…and one common problem is zinc deficiency.
In the Western world, a lot of dietary issues stem from eating foods that have a lot of calories but lack important nutrients.1 This means lots of processed foods and refined sugars are “empty” nutritionally.
Sometimes, dietary sensitivities cut off otherwise well-meaning eaters from vitamins and minerals they need. For instance, vegans are more likely than others to have a zinc deficiency.
Read on to learn why it’s important to have a regular supply of zinc, as well as where you can find some zinc-rich, vegan-friendly foods.
Understanding The Role of Zinc
Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning that it’s primarily garnered from the things we eat. As the second most common mineral in the body behind iron, zinc is in every cell and plays a vital role in many important bodily systems including:
- Central nervous
And this may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Zinc is noted as a good source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are being investigated for a variety of different functions, from slowing some of the effects of aging to playing a role in fighting some of the most serious health issues known.3
Now, while zinc deficiency isn’t common in the developed world, it can have serious consequences when it appears.
Symptoms can express themselves in the following ways:
- Possible infections
- Weight loss
- Potential emotional disturbances
- Skin health issues
- Taste issues
- Vision concerns
- Loss of appetite
- Delayed wound healing4
In the developing world, however, marginal zinc deficiency is known to affect an estimated 2 billion people.5 The most serious examples of zinc deficiency tend to occur when people have certain conditions that affect their zinc absorption.
The Good News about Zinc Deficiency
The good news when it comes to handling zinc deficiency is that on average, our guidelines for how much zinc you need daily are relatively low. The recommended daily allowance for men is 11 mg of zinc, and 8 mg for women.6
However, it needs to be noted that several groups of people have added needs for zinc, including pregnant and lactating women, the elderly, children, and adolescents. This is especially important for infants, young children, and pregnant women due to the role that zinc plays in growth.7 Check with your doctor to see if you fall into one of these groups.
Many sources recommend making use of a zinc supplement, and for people in the aforementioned groups, or those with a severe zinc deficiency already, it may not be a bad idea. Of course, before taking a zinc supplement or any other type of dietary supplement, be sure to consult with a doctor to check for any interactions or sensitivities.
However, the average person may want to consider looking at their diet before turning to a zinc supplement.
The RDAs are low enough that people can get the zinc they need as long as they eat well, and as you will see, some of the vegan sources rich in zinc can help you in a variety of other ways as well.
Zinc-rich Vegan Foods
Now, when it comes to finding a good source of zinc, vegans have a bit more of a mountain to climb than others might. First is the fact that seafood and red meat are at the top of the list as far as zinc content, with oysters at the very top. In addition, several vegan options, even those high in zinc and on this list, have something called phytates.
Phytates limit zinc absorption in the body, lowering how much you get from what you eat.8 This doesn’t mean they aren’t good sources of zinc, but be prepared to eat more in order to get regular amounts and avoid zinc deficiency. Some experts have recommended that vegans need to consume from 50% to twice as much as the recommended daily value to compensate for this zinc absorption.9 While a little extra zinc won’t cause any health issues, it is wise to consult with a medical professional first.
So, let’s take a look at where vegans want to go to meet their zinc needs.
Many vegans and vegetarians turn to tofu for its versatility, but what they may not know is that it is a good source of countless valuable vitamins and minerals. Not only is it high in zinc and calcium, but it also has plenty of protein and some omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re wondering how exactly to use it, simply turn to tofu as a substitute for a similar amount of meat or poultry in just about any recipe.
Again, phytates can limit zinc absorption from several sources, but there are two main categories of vegan friendly-foods that can actually lower phytate content: leavened products (like bread) and fermented foods (tempeh and miso). Tempeh, like tofu, has found popularity as a substitute for meat and each ½ cup of cooked tempeh provides 0.8 mg of zinc.10
The legume family is one of the greatest assets for vegans trying to get balanced nutrition, covering several nutritional holes such as protein as well as being high in zinc and many other important nutrients. Garbanzo beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans are particularly good sources of zinc.11
Not to be forgotten are nuts, another nutritional staple for vegans. Cashews and walnuts provide the highest amounts of zinc per mg.12 However, pine nuts, almonds, and pecans can all fill your zinc needs as well.
The catch is that out of all the sources of zinc mentioned here, nuts are the highest in phytates. In some cases, like soaked grains or leavened breads, there are things you can do to lower the phytate level and get more zinc in your meals. But when it comes to nuts, it’s not that simple. Don’t feel like you need to put them away, just get ready to back them up with some of the other options on this list!
You may recall us mentioning soaking grains, and yes, this can make all the difference when it comes to zinc absorption. Of all the grains out there, oats are among the most packed with zinc. This makes them a great option for a zinc-friendly breakfast: soak them overnight then prepare them the next morning.13
6. Wheat Germ
If you’re living gluten-free, you may not be able to take part in this particular option but wheat germ bears mentioning for how easy it is to incorporate to get not just zinc, but other important nutrients for vegans like protein and vitamin E. Getting wheat germ in your diet is as simple as sprinkling it on your cereal or oatmeal in the morning.
7. Pumpkin Seeds
If you’re looking for a way to get zinc on the go, pumpkin seeds are a great option. Also a bonus: they don’t have the phytate content of nuts. If you are looking to get the maximum levels of zinc, eat them raw, as roasting can remove some of the zinc content.
Leafy green vegetables are among the most nutrient-dense foods available, period. As a result, it should be no surprise that 1 cup of spinach can provide a good amount of zinc too. Note that other similar foods like kale, Swiss chard, even broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also good ways to help you meet your nutritional needs.
9. Whole Breads/Cereals
Now, the leavening process gets rid of some of the phytates in bread, but one thing to note is that several whole grain breads and cereals on the market are fortified, with added vitamins and minerals to help vegans and people with other special diets get everything they need. Many of the popular options on the market include added zinc.
10. Sea Vegetables
Finally, people have been singing the praises of seaweed and other sea vegetables for a while. The fact is, they draw in nutrients from the ocean such as iodine and others that can be difficult to find in plant-based products on land. Well, zinc is another example. With one cup of sea vegetables having 0.33 mg of zinc on top of several other important vitamins and minerals, they really can pack a zinc-y punch.
None of these foods will help you meet all your nutritional needs on their own, but by mixing and matching them — and keeping an eye on your consumption levels — you’ll be ready to create a nutrition foundation that matches your lifestyle as well as your body’s needs.
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