Since the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, though, the mineral zinc has started to receive some long overdue credit. In fact, many nutrition experts are now highlighting it as an immune must-have.
Here’s what to know about zinc—and how to make sure you’re meeting your needs.
The Benefits Of Zinc
Zinc activates hundreds of enzymes, which facilitate or initiate reactions in the body, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., owner of eatrightfitness. “Without zinc, many of these enzymes would not be created or effective, which would in turn halt key functions,” he says.
For example, zinc helps activate T-lymphocytes (or T cells), a type of white blood cell that affects immunity. If you have low T cells, your susceptibility to a slew of issues—including viral infections, immunodeficiency disorders, and cancer—increases, Adams says.
For that reason, zinc is often touted alongside vitamin C and other immune-supporting nutrients—especially during cold and flu season. In fact, research (including this 2013 review published in Cochrane Library) suggests the mineral plays a notable role in the body’s efforts to fight these common viruses.
Since zinc supports normal fetal growth and development, it also plays a vital role during pregnancy. (This benefit continues to be important throughout childhood and adolescence.) Plus, it helps the body repair wounds.
Although we only need small amounts of zinc—about eight milligrams daily for adult women and 11 milligrams daily for adult men—our body can’t produce adequate quantities on its own. For this reason, it’s essential that we acquire the mineral through food and/or supplements.
How To Tell If You’re Low On Zinc
Since our body does not require vast amounts of zinc, we often overlook deficiency.
“[Symptoms] tend to show up slowly,” says Adams. “Plus, outside of cold and flu season, we don’t see a lot of information on the immediate impact of taking zinc like we see with other essential nutrients, like B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and calcium,” he explains.
That said, there are a couple of signs that you’re running low on zinc. Over time, you may notice an increased susceptibility to sickness and infection, slower wound healing, and even hair loss, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N.
“Those with the highest risk of deficiency are vegetarians, people with digestive conditions and/or chronic illness, alcoholics, and pregnant and lactating women,” she says.
People who take high-dose iron supplements may also be at risk, since iron and zinc compete for absorption, she adds.
How To Get Your Fill Of Zinc
Whether you can meet your zinc needs with food alone depends on your diet.
Seafood and animal proteins are the richest sources of zinc. Incorporating these foods regularly will help you meet your needs.
Cooked oysters are by far the best food source of zinc out there, with every three-oyster serving providing 74 milligrams, according to the National Institutes of Health. When it comes to meat, a beef chuck roast, which provides seven milligrams per serving, is your best bet.
Luckily for vegans, vegetarians, and plant-based eaters, there are also plenty of plant sources of the mineral to choose from, too. Some of the top options: firm tofu (four milligrams per cup), hemp seeds (three milligrams per ounce), and lentils (three milligrams per cup).
It’s worth mentioning, however, that plant foods contain phytates, compounds that have been found to decrease the absorption of zinc. For this reason, Michels recommends plant-based eaters be extra mindful of their intake. “Try to overshoot your needs to make up for the inhibited absorption caused by phytates,” she says.
Meeting Your Needs With Supplements
When in doubt, “most multivitamins provide a baseline serving of zinc,” Michels says. Taking a daily multi ensures that you meet your needs—even if you do consume some zinc-containing foods regularly.
Another option: single-source zinc supplements. These are typically best-suited for those at risk for deficiency. Since the body doesn’t store zinc, excess supplementation can compete with copper absorption and cause a copper deficiency, warns dietitian Laura Cipullo, R.D. (It also competes with iron absorption and can cause blood iron levels to decrease.)
Supplementing for a few weeks to support immunity will not pose any issues, but Cipullo recommends talking to your healthcare provider before supplementing with zinc for extended periods of time.
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