Zinc is an essential mineral that has numerous functions in the body, including roles in enzyme function, brain function, and immunity. But is there a benefit to taking zinc supplements? Should zinc be consumed through food instead? We break down the information with this simple guide on everything you need to know about zinc!
Why is zinc important?
Zinc is essential for hundreds of functions in the body and for maintaining health. The body doesn’t store zinc, so it does need to be consumed through the diet to maintain optimal levels. Some signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency include unexplained weight loss, poor wound healing, changes to smell and taste, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, eye problems, irritability, hair loss and changes to nail health.
Zinc deficiencies are common in Australia, but those most at-risk of zinc deficiency are people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets, people on restrictive diets and people who have gut issues that may impact absorption (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease). Some athletes may also have higher requirements due to losses of zinc in sweat.
How much zinc do we need in our diet?
It’s recommended that men consume 11mg of zinc per day and women consume 8mg per day, but this increases to 11-12mg for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Key health benefits of zinc
The key roles that zinc contributes to the body include immune function and wound healing. Zinc deficiencies are linked to suppressed immune function, which is why it has become a popular supplement during cold and flu season. Key markers in the body of low immune function have been shown to improve following zinc supplementation. In terms of wound healing, zinc is involved in maintaining the integrity of skin and has been found to be effective during the treatment of chronic lower leg ulcers in the hospital setting. For an otherwise healthy person, zinc has a role in helping blood to clot so can help the healing of everyday cuts and scrapes. Some research also suggests that insulin sensitivity and testosterone production can be affected by low zinc levels, which are other common reasons that we see people turning toward zinc supplements.
Should I take a zinc supplement?
The benefits of taking a zinc supplement really depends on an individual’s zinc status prior. If you’re a healthy person with adequate levels of zinc in the body, you will be unlikely to see significant benefits to taking a zinc supplement. For athletes, taking zinc is often recommended due to the levels of zinc that are lost through sweat, however, this should be discussed with a Sports Dietitian first. Similarly, when taken at the first signs of a common cold, zinc supplements appear to be beneficial in reducing the duration and severity of colds.
Like with any supplement, it is always best to seek individual advice from a Dietitian and your healthcare team first to assess if it is a necessary and useful option for you. Large amounts of zinc can often lead to nausea. Athletes also need to take an extra level of caution with any supplement to reduce their risk of taking substances unknowingly.
What foods are high in zinc?
The good news is that we can also get plenty of zinc through our food. We always recommend looking at diet first, before considering supplements.
Foods high in zinc include:
- Meat, particularly red meat
- Shellfish, especially oysters and mussels
- Pumpkin seeds
- Pine nuts
- Almonds and cashews
- Wholegrains and legumes (Chickpeas, beans and lentils)
These foods do contain zinc but also contain naturally occurring phytates that interfere with zinc absorption. While they do contain zinc, it is not as well-absorbed in these foods compared to others on the list.