Zinc. Are You Getting Enough?
*This post contains Affiliate Links
Let's talk about Zinc. Some vegans have reportedly been diagnosed with a zinc deficiency, so I wanted to explore this particular mineral and try to provide some insight on what it is, what it does for you, how you can get it, and what can happen to you if you don't.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is the 24th most abundant natural mineral on this planet. It plays an essential role in the development of the human reproductive, central nervous, gastrointestinal, skeletal, and epidermal systems. Zinc is absorbed through the small intestines and excreted (mainly) through the large intestines. The importance of zinc in human health was only recently discovered in 1961 and zinc deficiency has been found to be a large factor in several developmental diseases and deformities.
What can Zinc do for you?
Zinc has proven to be a valuable aid in fighting cancer and various infections. It acts like an anti-oxidant and has the ability to rid the body of free radicals and even slow the aging process. Some reports have even associated an increase in zinc with a positive impact in hormonal imbalances, infertility, and diabetes. Zinc can be an effective tool in reducing symptoms of diarrhea, and it can help patients suffering from gastrointestinal issues such as Crohn's Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Additionally, zinc plays a role in a person’s sense of smell and taste.
Do you have a zinc deficiency?
The physical signs of a zinc deficiency cover quite a broad range. This fact is due to the many functional roles that zinc plays in the human body. It is evident that deficiency in early adolescence can result in delayed developmental growth, impaired cognitive function, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and a high risk of infection. Human zinc requirements are at their highest point during periods of developmental growth such as pregnancy, infancy, and puberty.
Deficiency in adults can result in impaired congnitive function, inflammatory intestinal issues, impaired immunity, increase in skin lesions and rashes, overactive bowel activity, loss of taste and smell, and can even increase risks to certain cancers, including prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer.
How can you ensure you're getting enough Zinc?
Zinc is found most abundantly in animal protein, such as red meat, fish, and lobster. However, much like B-12, zinc is a mineral found in the earth. It is eaten by animals, stored in their tissues, and then passed on to humans as they ingest those animal products. What that process tells us is that it IS possible to get the proper amount of zinc from plant-based foods that are grown in zinc-rich soil (Bio-Fortified), just like with Vitamin B-12. It's as simple as "cutting out the middle man," which in this case, happens to be the animals themselves. Though the quantities may be less than that of animal protein, there are some fruits and vegetables that commonly contain zinc already (when examined under most common agricultural conditions).
The chart below has just a few examples of some fruits and vegetables that are all rich in zinc. There are more foods out there as well, but adding some of these to your diet will start you in the right direction!
Although this is not an all-inclusive list, if the foods mentioned above do not quite suit your palate, taking a zinc supplement might be something to look into with your healthcare provider. You lose about 53% of your absorbed zinc through fecal excretion, so bare in mind that you should be replenishing your zinc reserves regularly, especially if you experience an increase in bowel productivity. Humans also excrete zinc through sweating, urinating, ejaculating, lactating, and menstruating. Some researchers believe that the decline in lactation, menstruation, and prostate function in older adults may be the reason that zinc deficiency becomes more prevalent with age. In other words, when you stop excreting it, you also stop absorbing it in those areas.
The vast majority of vegans should not experience zinc deficiency if they are regularly consuming a large variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. However, for those whose diet mainly consists of unleavened grains, starches, and fat, a greater potential for deficiency exists. It has also been proven that increases in infection, inflammation, and some chronic illnesses, such as Atherosclerosis, Cirrhosis, or Hyperalbuminemia, can result in a person's Zinc absorption rate to decline.
In a nutshell...
Zinc deficiency is most prevalent in under-developed countries, where access to adequate nutrition is limited, and in some with chronic illnesses. If you're working hard to eat well-balanced, nutritious meals that include an assortment of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, then you shouldn't have much to worry about. But, if you run into bouts of illness where your excretions are overactive or your nutrition is poor, make sure to fuel your body with the proper nutrients. Doing so may even help you power through an illness faster.
If you or someone you know does not eat as much nutrient-rich food as is recommended, then having a conversation with a healthcare provider about zinc supplementation might be a smart idea. Although it shouldn't be a major concern for most people, it is an important thing to think about. At some point, we all age, we all get sick, and we all have times in our life when we eat poorly. Keeping in mind the risks and benefits associated with this mineral will only help us maintain our overall health and well-being!