Both vegans and vegetarians tend to pay a lot of attention to the macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbs, and crucial vitamins like B12 are also high on vegans’ radar. But one thing I find surprising is how few people on a plant-based diet know enough about their mineral intake.
If you exercise a lot, then you should be paying attention to your electrolytes like sodium and potassium, but how many of you have ever worried about your zinc intake?
Most people I talk to about their dietary mineral don’t keep track of it at all, and when it comes to zinc, they completely underestimate its importance. So, to help you fully understand why it is essential, how you can source it from natural vegan-friendly foods, and a simple trick to get a boost, I’ve put together this guide that explains it all.
Zinc and The Vegan Diet
Zinc is an essential mineral that is critical for your immune system, protein synthesis, wound healing, and hormone production. It is required for the production of 300 different enzymes and an array of other processes (1).
You definitely want to make sure you get enough of it, as a deficiency can manifest itself as a loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, impotence, weight loss, and mental lethargy.
These are all symptoms that can become dangerous for your health if you remain in a continuous state of deficiency. So there are mainly two different factors that may negatively influence zinc status on a plant-based diet:
1. Cutting Out Zinc-Rich Animal Products
Despite its multitude of drawbacks, both ethically and for your health, meat is still a very good source of bioavailable zinc.
Suddenly erasing this food group will inevitably reduce your zinc intake, meaning you will have to replace it with seeds, legumes, and vegetables that are rich in this nutrient.
2. Anti-Nutrients Possibly Blocking Absorption
The other aspect that might negatively impact intake is anti-nutrients that are found in plant foods such as 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 the absorption of zinc in the gastrointestinal tract. Due to the presence of phytic acid and its proposed negative effect on zinc absorption and also the exclusion of meat, the bioavailability of zinc is significantly lower on a plant-based diet (2) (3).
However, one point I'd like to make is that the concern about phytates anti-nutritional properties might have been somewhat inflated. It's been shown that a vegetarian diet, which is 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, the results are still relevant nonetheless. It’s important to understand that there are positive effects that counterbalance the negative (4).
So, phytates’ negative impact on mineral bioavailability might not apply to the same degree for vegans as it does for meat-eaters.
3. Adaptability to Lower Zinc Intake
To maintain homeostasis, the human body adapts to reduced consumption with consequently reduced endogenous losses (basically less zinc escapes via poop, urine, and sweat) (5).
Additionally, other metabolic adjustments occur which tap into 'pools' of zinc in our cells. This means that your body has the capacity to adjust and adapt long-term to reduced zinc intake.
One study showed that switching from a mixed to a lacto-vegetarian diet resulted in a decrease in plasma and hair concentrations of zinc, as well as a decrease in urinary zinc excretion (6).
Yet after this initial decrease, only small changes occurred in regards to zinc levels, and after three years, the trace element concentrations had reverted towards baseline concentrations.
Vegetarians have a similar zinc status to that of non-vegetarians and are at no greater risk of deficiency. As noted, it seems like the body is quite capable of adapting to lower intakes by increased absorption and retention (7).
How to Get Enough 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, can be 1.5 times higher than for non-vegetarians. Now how adamant you should be about this recommendation is debatable (8).
It is obvious that your body does adapt to differences in zinc intake and that deficiency isn't an issue for vegetarians. Also, long-term consumption of higher levels of phytate increases the efficiency of the gut to break it down.
Some Great Sources of Vegan Zinc
Anyways, to ensure adequate intake, you want to focus on the zinc-rich groups of foods known as legumes, as well as nuts and seeds.
Check out our table below which are all an excellent choice and they are all very easy to add to your meal plan.
Zinc is also found in many other plant foods; for example, whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, mushrooms, and many green vegetables such as spinach, peppers, peas, and broccoli. These all contribute towards your daily goals.
Below is a list with some great plant-based sources of zinc.
Nuts & Seeds
Let’s analyze these in a little bit more detail.
A Few Awesome "Hacks" to Enhance Zinc Absorption
Pre-soaking and sprouting legumes and grains, fermenting (for example tempeh) and the leavening of bread (allowing the dough to 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 content of a meal also promotes zinc absorption. Basically, the more protein, the better in terms of zinc uptake - that is why legumes are such a good source, as they contain plenty of both protein and zinc (9).
One study found that the combination of onion and garlic with cereals and legumes considerably boosted iron and especially zinc bioavailability. The intake increased by as much as 159.4% in cereal foods (10)!
While there are many different vegan sources of zinc based on the above list, it can become a bit of a challenge to get enough of them into your meal plans.
You will need several hundred grams a day, and not all the sources will be suitable to add in larger amounts. Add to that seasonal availability restrictions, and you can quickly struggle to find enough variation.
Some of the recommended products will also add more work and time to all your food preparation and cooking efforts. Time not all of us have with a busy work and family life. And that’s why we highly recommend taking supplements, even if it’s just occasionally to give your body a little boost.
By far the best product we’ve found is made by Garden of Life. The amount of zinc in Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw Zinc is more than enough to cover multiple days’ worth of your intake needs.
There’s no problem taking them on a daily basis, as any excess amount is simply discarded because the body has no ability to store this mineral.
Each bottle contains 60 capsules, and is relatively inexpensive - it really is a no-brainer. If you know you’ll be low on zinc at the end of a particular day, just take one and be on the safe side.
It is critical for normal growth and development, and a well functioning immune system. Animal foods sources of zinc are more bioavailable than plant sources, though zinc deficiency is widespread, despite dietary preferences.
Medical Herbalist and Nutritionist
Vegan Zinc Sources: The Bottom Line
As a vegan, you have to be extra careful about your vitamin, mineral and other micronutrient intake. Even after many years adapting to this lifestyle, finding healthy and environmentally friendly sources for many of vital nutrients can be a bit of a struggle.
There are several vegan foods with zinc that are relatively easy to find throughout the year, but adding them to your meal plans on a daily basis can become boring.
For those days where you know your intake will be down, the easiest thing to do is give yourself a boost with supplements. It’s a cheap option that will make sure your body keeps functioning the way it should. Let us know if you have any other great ideas we could add to this list.
1. Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
2. Lönnerdal, B. (2000, May). Dietary factors influencing zinc absorption. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10801947
3. Hunt, J. R., Matthys, L. A., & Johnson, L. K. (1998, March). Zinc absorption, mineral balance, and blood lipids in women consuming controlled lactoovovegetarian and omnivorous diets for 8 wk. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9497185?dopt=Abstract
4. Armah, S. M., Boy, E., Chen, D., Candal, P., & Reddy, M. B. (2015, August). Regular Consumption of a High-Phytate Diet Reduces the Inhibitory Effect of Phytate on Nonheme-Iron Absorption in Women with Suboptimal Iron Stores. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26041677
5. King, J. C. (2011, August). Zinc: An essential but elusive nutrient. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21715515?dopt=Abstract
6. Srikumar, T. S., Johansson, G. K., Ockerman, P. A., Gustafsson, J. A., & Akesson, B. (1992, April). Trace element status in healthy subjects switching from a mixed to a lactovegetarian diet for 12 mo. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1550072?dopt=Abstract
7. Saunders, A. V., Craig, W. J., & Baines, S. K. (2013, August 19). Zinc and vegetarian diets. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25369924
8. Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
9. Bo. (2000, May 01). Dietary Factors Influencing Zinc Absorption. Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/5/1378S.full
10. Gautam, S., Platel, K., & Srinivasan, K. (2010, July 28). Higher bioaccessibility of iron and zinc from food grains in the presence of garlic and onion. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20597543
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