Although zinc is necessary for your immune system, growth and development, we don’t talk about it often. Many people don’t realize that zinc helps heal wounds, fight off pathogens and contributes to more essential bodily functions.
When you’re working on creating a healthy diet, make sure that your food sources contain enough zinc to support healthy bodily functions. Read on to discover why zinc is important for your health, and how to get enough each day.
Why is zinc so important?
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Zinc is a nutrient that people need to stay healthy. Zinc is found in cells throughout the body. It helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses. The body also needs zinc to make proteins and DNA, the genetic material in all cells. During pregnancy, infancy, and childhood, the body needs zinc to grow and develop properly. Zinc also helps wounds heal and is important for proper senses of taste and smell.” Zinc also contributes to enzymatic reactions and genetic expression.
How much zinc do I need?
Typically, the average adult man needs 11 milligrams of zinc each day, and adult women need eight—unless they’re pregnant or breastfeeding. In that case, you should aim to get 12 mg of zinc each day.
Children need somewhere between two to 11 mg every day, depending on their age, gender and growth needs. It’s always best to talk to your doctor or pediatrician to make sure everyone in your family is getting the appropriate dosage.
Most people get enough zinc, but there are certain conditions that make it harder for your body to absorb it. For example, alcohol abuse, digestive diseases (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) and stomach or intestinal surgery can interfere with how well your body can process the nutrient. If you don’t eat animal products, you may also have a hard time getting enough zinc through diet alone. Finally, older infants (over six months old) may not get enough zinc through breastfeeding alone, although formula-fed infants do. Breastfed infants should eat supplemental food, such as pureed meat, to improve their zinc levels.
Low zinc levels can cause hair loss, delay growth and puberty, eye and skin sores, diarrhea and loss of appetite. This can also threaten sexual desire in men. If you notice any of these issues, talk to your doctor. Although they may be caused by other health problems, a zinc supplement could help get your levels where they need to be.
Great sources of zinc
Zinc is widely found in many plant and animal products. Animal products are by far the better source, since they contain a lot of zinc in a form that the body can easily break down and absorb. Shellfish like oysters, crab, clams, mussels and lobster are good choices, as well as meats like beef, pork, poultry, bison and lamb. Fish is another good source of zinc, especially flounder, salmon, sole and sardines.
Eggs and dairy products—that is, cheese, milk and yogurt—are also good sources of zinc, especially if you’re a vegetarian.
If you’re on a plant-based diet, focus on legumes like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and lentils. You can also find zinc in nuts and seeds, including cashews and pumpkin seeds. Whole grains are a smart choice, including brown rice, oats and quinoa.
Some vegetables and fungi are good sources of zinc. Mushrooms, beet greens, kale, peas and asparagus all have higher levels of zinc and are readily available.
Keep in mind that plant-based sources of zinc are harder for your body to break down and utilize, so you may need to eat more zinc-laden foods than if you were to eat meat. You can also look for fortified foods, like energy bars, breakfast cereals and even flour. They’ll contain extra zinc to support your body’s overall health and development.
The bottom line
While we might not give much thought to zinc, it’s an essential nutrient in our everyday diet. Chances are that you’re already getting enough zinc in your daily diet, especially if you eat the foods above. However, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or eat a plant-based diet, you should be even more aware of your zinc intake.
Remember, if all else fails, your doctor can recommend an appropriate supplement or diet plan to improve your zinc levels. As long as you’re getting enough zinc, your body will thank you.