Vegetarian diet and all its variations (f.e. vegan) provides you with plenty of health benefits, if done correctly. When on this diet, you need to pay extra attention to the following vitamins, minerals and microelements to avoid their deficiency: calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient amount of protein.

This post is about zinc.

The role of zinc in the body

Zinc is indirectly involved in the production of everything in the body. It is involved in growth, immunity, cognitive function, bone function, and regulation of gene expression. Zinc also protects us against every form of stress, including infection, oxidative stress, heavy metal toxicity, psychological and emotional stress, and blood sugar problems.

Zinc deficiency causes stunted growth, poor appetite, skin problems (dermatitis), hair loss / baldness (alopecia), endocrine dysfunction, and impaired immunity.

Several studies compared zinc levels in vegetarians and omnivores and came to the common conclusion that zinc intake and its levels in the blood are the same or slightly lower than for omnivores, but still within the normal range.

How to enhance the zinc bioavailability from food?

The main contributor to zinc deficiency worldwide (diarrhea-causing infections don’t count), is a diet low in animal products and high in a plant compound known as phytate, which is found in whole grains, legumes (lentils, beans, and peas), nuts, and seeds.

Phytate is largely made of phosphorus, and it binds to minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and manganese. This means that all these minerals, including zinc, become unavailable for our body to use.

We can reduce the amount of phytate in our plant foods by sprouting, leavening, fermenting by soaking them overnight in a warm and slightly acidic water. How much phytate you’ll reduce by doing this, is hard to measure. Therefore, it is wise to eat zinc-rich foods separately from phytate-rich foods.

How to enhance zinc absorption from food?

Animal protein, sulfur-containing amino acids and organic acids help you with that.

In general, zinc is 5 times more absorbable from the animal food than from the plant food. In case of vegetarians and pescetarians: eggs, whey, fish and shellfish (especially oysters) are the good sources of zinc from animal protein. Although cheese is also rich in zinc, the dominant protein, casein, in it, may actually prevent zinc absorption.

The examples of foods, rich in sulfur-containing amino acids (methionine and cysteine) are chickpeas, couscous, eggs, lentils, oats, and walnuts. Besides, allium vegetables, such as garlic, onions, leeks, chives, scallions, and shallots, are one of the main sources of dietary sulfur.

As for sour acids, adding yoghurt or fermented veggies (lactate acid), citrus (citrate acid) or non-citrus fruits (malate acid) helps increase zinc absorption from food.

And don’t forget about the clever mechanisms of your own body, which adapt to lower zinc intakes by reducing losses and increasing absorption! During periods of high demand (f.e. pregnancy or childhood), absorption becomes more efficient. In one way or the other, your body needs sufficient amounts of zinc to be able to work properly.

How much zinc is sufficient to stay healthy?

Although the Institute of Medicine didn’t make a special RDA (recommended dietary allowances) for vegans or vegetarians, it stated in the 2001 report that people, who get their zinc exclusively from plants, may need 50% more! That would lead to 12 mg/d for women and to 16.5 mg/d for men eating a plant-based diet.

However, more recent computer modeling of zinc absorption has suggested that several servings per day of phytate-rich foods would raise the zinc requirement to 100 mg/d, which is almost impossible to get from food.

What plant-based foods are the good sources of zinc?

Vegetarian food sources for zinc include nuts, seeds, wholegrains, legumes, tofu, tempeh, and dairy products. If you are vegan, than fortified foods (such as fortified breakfast cereals) and zinc supplementation may be necessary to avoid zinc deficiency.

Curious? HERE is the source

Tatsiana Haponava, PhD

a certified nutrition coach, educator and researcher with a PhD degree

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