How to Get Zinc on a Vegan Diet
When you're faced with "So where do you get your zinc bro?" and don't have a good answer I'd highly suggest you to read this article.
The trace mineral zinc is a essential to our survival and health and is required for over 300 enzymes to work properly.
Getting enough of this nutrient is doable on a vegan diet, but can be a bit tricky if you're not familiar with the ins and outs of plant-based nutrition.
If you've just recently gone plant-based it's important to learn what foods to replace your previous zinc sources with. Especially if you're an athlete as sweating increases losses of zinc.
Zinc and the vegan diet
Zinc is an essential mineral involved in the immune system, protein synthesis, wound healing, hormone production, required for the production of 300 different enzymes and an array of other processes.
You definitely want to make sure you get enough zinc as a deficiency can manifest as growth retardation, loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, impotence, weight loss and mental lethargy.
There are two different factors that may influence zinc status negatively on a plant-based diet.
Cutting out animal products
The exclusion of meat. Despite it's multitude of drawbacks, both ethically and for your health, meat is a very good source of bioavailable zinc.
Suddenly erasing this food group will reduce zinc intake. Which means we will have to replace it with plant foods high in zinc.
The other aspect that might negatively impact zinc status is antinutrients that are found in legumes and whole grains.
The antinutrient phytate or phytic acid has an affinity to bind with minerals such as zinc, calcium and iron. Thus interfering with and reducing absorption of zinc in the gastrointestinal tract.
However one point I'd like to make is that the concern about phytates anti-nutritional properties might have been inflated.
It's been shown that a vegetarian diet, rich in phytate, increases the efficiency of your gut flora to degrade, or break down phytate. One particularly interesting study comparing low and high phytate diets found that the latter had a positive effect on iron absorption by 41%!
While the study examined iron absorption, and not zinc, the results are still relevant.
So phytate's negative impact on mineral bioavailability might not apply to the same degree to vegans, or a high-phytate diet, than to meateaters.
For more information about phytic acid and it's amazing health benefits make sure to read this article.
Adaptability to lower zinc intake
To maintain homeostasis, the human body adapts to reduced zinc intake with consequently reduced endogenous losses (basically less zinc escapes via poops, urine and sweat). Additionally other metabolic adjustments occur that taps into 'pools' of zinc in our cells.
Which means our body has the capacity to adjust and adapt long-term to reduced zinc intake.
One study showed that switching from a mixed to a lactovegetarian diet resulted in a decrease in plasma and hair concentrations of zinc, as well as a decrease in urinary zinc excretion.
Yet after this initial decrease only small changes occured in regards to zinc levels, and after the three years trace element concentrations had reverted towards baseline concentrations.
Vegetarians have similiar zinc status to that of non-vegetarians, and are at no greater risk for zinc deficiency. As noted it seems like the body is quite capable of adapting to lower zinc intakes by increased absorption and retention of zinc.
Getting zinc on a vegan diet
The RDA established by the Food & Nutrition Board for zinc is 11 mg and 8 mg for adult men and women, respectively.
Zinc requirements for vegetarians, due to the reason of lowered bioavailability, may be 1,5 higher than for non-vegetarians.
Now how adamant one should be about this recommendation is debatable.
It is obvious that the body does adapt to differences in zinc intake and that zinc deficiency isn't an issue for vegetarians. Also as noted, long-term consumption of a high-phytate increases the efficiency of the gut to break down phytate.
Good source of vegan zinc
Anyways, to ensure adequate zinc intake you want to focus on the zinc-rich groups of foods legumes and nuts and seeds.
All kinds of lentils, beans, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts etc.
Zinc is also found in many other plant foods; whole grains, such as oatmeal and brown rice, mushrooms and many vegetables such as spinach, peppers, peas and broccoli. These all contribute towards your daily zinc goals.
Below is a list with some good plant-based sources of zinc.
Tricks to enhance zinc absorption
Pre-soaking and sprouting legumes and grains, fermenting (for example tempeh) and leavening of breads (letting dough rise with yeast) all contribute to degrading phytate in grains. By using these cooking methods phytate content can be reduced and zinc absorption can be enhanced.
The total protein intake of a meal promotes zinc absorption. Basically the more protein the better. That is why legumes are such a good source of zinc, they contain both plenty of protein and zinc.
One study found that the combination of onion and garlic with cereals and legumes considerably boosted iron and especially zinc bioavailability. Uptake of zinc increased by as much as 159.4% in cereal foods! The sulfur compounds in Allium vegetables i.e garlic, onion, chives and shallots is probably the responsible mechanism behind this.
If you're still having difficulties getting enough zinc a supplement can be useful. Here is a good vegan zinc supplement if you want to go that route.
Thanks for reading the whole thing, I hope this article was helpful and that you know now how to get enough zinc!