If you’ve been sleeping on zinc, it’s time to give this mineral the attention it deserves.
“Zinc catalyzes (or speeds up) almost 100 different enzymes, synthesizes (or makes) protein, and regulates gene expression (or DNA),” says Brooke Glazer, R.D.N., dietitian and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. “It’s also involved in wound healing and immune function.”
And if that wasn’t enough, it plays roles in tissue repair and sperm production, and has antioxidant activity, adds Cindy Dallow, Ph.D., R.D., sports dietitian and founder of My Body My Life Nutrition and Fitness.
Generally, meeting your zinc needs (11 and 8 milligrams per day for adult men and women, respectively) means loading up on zinc-rich foods like oysters, beef, poultry, legumes, nuts, and seeds, says Glazer.
Since the body needs only small amounts of zinc, deficiencies are pretty uncommon, Glazer explains. However, certain people are at greater risk of deficiency—or may need more zinc than the average person. Here are seven groups of people who need more zinc, and may want to consider supplementation.
1. Vegetarians and Vegans
“Meat is high in bioavailable zinc,” explains Glazer. So, since vegetarians don’t consume meat, they may be more likely to miss out on the mineral.
Yes, there is zinc in plant foods—however, it isn’t as bioavailable, meaning less of it is absorbed into the bloodstream, Glazer says. (Basically, you can’t put as much of it to use.)
Read More: The Best Supplements For Plant-Based Eaters
“In addition, vegetarians typically eat high levels of legumes and whole grains, which contain a compound that binds to zinc and inhibits its absorption,” she adds.
Like vegetarians, vegans are also at an increased risk for a zinc deficiency due to avoidance of meat, poultry, shellfish, and dairy products, says Dallow. And since vegans miss out on the opportunity to get some zinc from dairy, in addition to animal proteins, they face a slightly higher risk of deficiency.
2. The Elderly
Elderly people are less likely to load up on enough zinc-rich foods, which puts them at risk for zinc deficiency,” explains Dallow. (This is especially common in elderly over the age of 75.)
3. Pregnant and lactating women
“Pregnant women, particularly those early in pregnancy with marginal zinc status, are at increased risk of becoming zinc insufficient due, in part, to high fetal requirements for zinc,” says Glazer.
“Lactation can also deplete maternal zinc stores,” she adds. For these reasons, the RDA for zinc is higher for pregnant women (11 milligrams per day) and lactating women (12 milligrams per day) than for other women (eight milligrams per day).
4. Older infants who are exclusively breastfed
“Breast milk provides sufficient zinc (two milligrams per day) for the first four to six months of life,” Glazer says. “However, it does not provide the RDA for zinc (three milligrams per day) for infants aged seven to 12 months.”
Because of this, Glazer recommends babies seven months old and older consume age-appropriate foods (like whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, yogurt, or potatoes) or formulas containing zinc, in addition to breast milk.
5. Women on or coming off of birth control
It may not be a very well known fact, but birth control (including hormonal birth control pills and IUDs) can affect the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Specifically, these include: folic acid, vitamins B2, B6, B12, vitamins C and E, and the minerals magnesium, selenium, and zinc. With zinc, it’s not fully understood why the deficiency happens. So when coming off birth control, your body may be depleted.
6. People who are sick
Since zinc plays a major role in immune health, those with mild illnesses like the common cold may need more zinc because zinc deficiency depresses immune function. “Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system,” says Dr. Dallow. Zinc has also been found to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms, fighting rhinovirus.
7. People with digestive disorders
Those with digestive diseases (like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and short bowel syndrome) experience decreased zinc absorption and may need additional zinc supplementation. According to one Inflammatory Bowel Diseases study, up to 15 to 40 percent of patients with irritable bowel disease (IBD) experience zinc deficiency.
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