Zinc is an essential nutrient that’s sometimes overlooked when talking about vegan diets. However, zinc may be challenging to consume and absorb in adequate amounts from plant-based foods.
With careful planning, vegans can likely meet their needs for zinc.
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What is Zinc?
Zinc is an essential mineral, and an important nutrient to consider on a vegan diet.
When it comes to nutrition, there are two major factors to consider:
- The amount of a nutrient contained in foods
- How well the body absorbs that nutrient
While certain nutrients are limited in plant-based foods, there are also some nutrients that are harder to absorb from plants. With zinc, both issues are a factor to consider.
Plants contain zinc, but in smaller amounts than animal products. Zinc is also more challenging to absorb from plant-based foods.
Therefore, it’s important vegans learn what foods are high in zinc and how to prepare them in ways that improve absorption.
What Does Zinc Do in the Body?
- Immune system: Zinc is important for immune system function.
- Proper cell division and growth in children: Without adequate zinc, cells may not divide properly. This is especially critical in pregnancy and growing children.
- Wound healing: Zinc is part of the process that heals wounds.
- Healthy red blood cells: Zinc is needed to help make hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in blood 3.
- Zinc helps fight oxidation: Oxidation can damage cells, so it’s important to have enough zinc to work with other nutrients and antioxidants to fight oxidation 4.
- Sexual maturation of men: Zinc is important for men and women, but males have high requirements for zinc as it’s needed for testosterone and sperm production.
Most zinc in the body is stored in muscles, with much of the rest stored in bones. Very little zinc circulates in blood 1.
Intake Requirements for Zinc
- 11 milligrams per day for men
- 8 milligrams per day for women
- 11 milligrams per day during pregnancy
- 12 milligrams per day during lactation
Other reviews calculated slightly different zinc requirements 6. Taking the many reviews into consideration, zinc requirements can be reported as a range:
- 9-11 milligrams per day for men
- 7-8 milligrams per day for women
These amounts assume a mixed diet that contains animal products, which are both higher in zinc and help zinc absorption.
Zinc Requirements for Vegans
There is a note within the dietary reference intake recommendations that states: 5
“The requirement for zinc may be as much as 50 percent greater for vegetarians, particularly for strict vegetarians, whose major food stapes are grains and legumes, due to the lower bioavailability of zinc from a vegetarian diet.”
If you add 50% onto standard recommendations, you get about 16 milligrams per day for men and 12 milligrams per day for women.
It’s well known that absorption of zinc from plant-based foods is restricted. Two reviews examining zinc intake requirements factored this in 6. They found that, for those consuming zinc from low bioavailable foods (mostly plant-based foods), daily zinc requirements may be: 6
- 14 milligrams per day for men
- 10-12 milligrams per day for women
Consuming these higher amounts of zinc may be helpful, although it’s prudent for vegans to meet at least the basic zinc requirements set for the general population.
The proposed higher intake amounts are possible from vegan foods, but intakes at this high level may be challenging and likely require planning.
Higher recommendations assume lower absorption of zinc from plant-based foods. Tips to improve absorption are discussed below.
Are Vegans Deficient in Zinc?
Examining vegan intakes of zinc, against the adjusted (50% greater) recommendations, showed many vegans may have inadequate zinc intakes 8.
Examining blood content of zinc often shows vegans have lower levels compared to meat eaters 7, 8, 9, 10. However, apart from one study, blood levels of zinc in vegans is typically within the target range 7, 8, 9, 10.
From these studies, it seems vegans aren’t routinely deficient in zinc when meeting basic intake requirements.
Zinc Deficiency Signs and Symptoms
Since zinc plays a role in many areas of the body, signs of deficiency are hard to pinpoint. Many symptoms of zinc deficiency are generalized and may be related to other factors.
Some signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency include:
- Impaired growth in infants and children 2, 6, 11
- Frequent infections/ impaired immune system 2, 6
- Loss of appetite 2, 11
- Reproductive problems 2, 11
- Altered sense of taste and smell 2, 11
- Poor wound healing 2, 11
- Changes in cognitive function 2, 11
- Diarrhea 2, 6, 11
- Hair loss 11
- Skin lesions 11
If you experience any of these signs and symptoms and/or are concerned about your zinc status, please seek medical attention.
How to Get Enough Zinc on a Vegan Diet
Consuming enough zinc on a vegan diet requires some planning. To overcome reduced amounts of zinc in plant-based foods, consider using strategies to enhance absorption.
How to Increase Zinc Absorption
Phytates (phytic acid) are found in many plant-based foods. Phytates bind to zinc in the intestine and limit the amount of zinc that you can absorb.
There are ways to minimize the effects of phytates found in plant-based foods including:
- Sprouting: Sprouting foods before cooking/ eating can reduce the amount of phytate in that food, improving zinc absorption. The amount of phytate that’s lost depends on the specific food that is sprouted (also known as germination) 1, 12, 13, 14.
- Soaking: Soaking legumes and grains (then discarding the water) can reduce phytate content. The soaking time needed, and the amount of phytate lost, depends on the specific grain or legume. Soaking isn’t quite as effective as sprouting but is more practical for many people 13, 14.
- Fermentation: Fermenting foods can reduce the amount of phytate and lead to better zinc absorption. Fermentation is used in making sourdough bread and tempeh (many other foods too) 1, 13.
- Leavening: Using yeast in bread making (known as leavening) seems to reduce phytate content and help with zinc absorption. Many bread products are leavened but selecting whole grain options is important to ensure there is adequate zinc present 1, 12.
- Protein content of the meal: Adding more protein in a meal that contains zinc may improve zinc absorption. Most high-zinc foods are also good sources of protein 1, 12.
- Heating: Cooking food can reduce phytate content, but on its own is very ineffective. Phytates can remain at high levels even after 1 hour of boiling. A combination of soaking and then cooking may be helpful 13, 14.
Other research suggests taking an iron supplement with a meal containing zinc may decrease zinc absorption, although iron naturally present in a meal doesn’t seem to be an issue 12. It may be a good idea to take iron supplements at a different time than a meal high in zinc.
Lastly, casein, a protein found in milk, appears to inhibit zinc absorption 1. This isn’t a concern for vegans but may be an issue for vegetarians who regularly consume dairy products.
Vegan Foods High in Zinc
Vegan foods high in zinc include:
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils)
- Soy (including tofu, tempeh)
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
- Fortified foods
Much of the zinc in grains is in the outer layer, a part called the “germ”. Grain germ is removed when grain is refined (for example, when making white flour).
Zinc content of refined grains is less compared to whole grains. There is still zinc in refined grains, just a smaller amount (unless the refined grain is fortified with zinc, which is possible).
Other food sources of zinc on a vegan diet include fortified foods. In many places, breakfast cereals are fortified with zinc 15. Mock meat products are commonly fortified with zinc and in some locations, this zinc fortification is mandatory 15.
Other foods may be fortified with zinc. Check the label to see if a product is fortified; “zinc” should appear on the ingredient list.
The following list contains the amount of zinc in certain vegan food sources 16.
|Chickpeas, boiled||250 ml/ 170 g||2.65|
|Kidney beans, boiled||250 ml/ 187 g||1.87|
|Lentils, boiled||250 ml/ 209 g||2.66|
|Peas, green, boiled||250 ml/ 170 g||2.01|
|Black beans, boiled||250 ml/ 195 g||1.49|
|Pinto beans, boiled||250 ml/ 180 g||1.77|
|Peanuts, raw||60 ml/ 37 g||1.21|
|Tofu, firm or extra firm, calcium set||250 ml/ 266 g||2.21|
|Tempeh||250 ml/ 175 g||1.14|
|Soy milk, fortified (will vary by brand)||250 ml/ 257 g||1.01|
|Edamame, boiled||250 ml/ 190 g||1.73|
|Peanuts, raw||60 mL/ 37 g||1.21|
|Chia seeds||60 ml/ 43 g||1.98|
|Hemp seeds, hulled||60 ml/ 40 g||3.69|
|Flaxseeds, ground||60 ml/ 28 g||1.23|
|Sunflower seeds, hulled||60 ml/ 35 g||1.78|
|Sesame seeds||60 ml / 38 g||2.56|
|Pumpkin seeds||60 ml/ 35 g||2.73|
|Almonds, unblanched, unroasted, whole||60 ml/ 36 g||1.12|
|Cashews, raw||60 ml/ 33 g||1.91|
|Pistachios, raw||60 ml/ 31 g||0.69|
|Walnuts, halves||60 ml/ 25 g||0.78|
|Macadamia nuts, raw||60 ml/ 34 g||0.44|
|Pine nuts||60 ml/ 30 g||1.28|
|Pecans, halves||60 ml/ 25 g||1.14|
|Hazelnuts||60 ml/ 34 g||0.84|
|Brazil nuts||60 ml/ 35 g||1.44|
|Oatmeal, dry||100 g||2.98|
|Wheat germ||15 ml/ 7.2 g||1.19|
|Quinoa, cooked||250 ml/ 195 g||2.13|
|Brown rice, cooked||250 ml/ 206 g||1.3|
|White rice, cooked||250 mL/ 167 g||0.82|
|Whole grain pasta, cooked||250 ml/ 148 g||1.2|
|Pasta, enriched, cooked||250 mL/ 148 g||0.75|
|Buckwheat, dry, whole||250 ml/ 180 g||4.31|
|Corn, sweet, yellow, kernels cut off cob, boiled||250 ml/ 174 g||1.1|
|Whole grain bread (will vary by brand)||1 slice/ 33 g||0.59|
|Miso paste||15 ml/ 17 g||0.45|
|Broccoli, raw, chopped||250 ml/ 93 g||0.38|
|Mushrooms, white, raw||250 ml/ 101 g||0.53|
You need multiple servings of these foods per day to meet daily zinc intake recommendations.
Do Vegans Need a Zinc Supplement?
Zinc supplements aren’t often recommended for average, healthy vegans.
Someone should only need a supplement if their needs cannot be met through food and/or if there are concerns with absorption due to a medical condition 2.
Certain life stages or medical conditions may also increase needs (pregnancy, lactation) 2. If these increased needs cannot be met through food, a zinc supplement may help.
Always speak to your primary care provider before starting any supplements.
Can You Get Too Much Zinc?
As with almost any nutrient, more is not always better and too much could be harmful 2.
Consuming too much zinc doesn’t seem to happen from food sources alone; however, it is possible from taking supplements.
There are many zinc supplements with amounts over this upper limit (often 50 milligrams or more) so take care if deciding to start a zinc supplement (after speaking with your doctor/ primary care provider).
Vegan Recipes High in Zinc
Here are some vegan recipes that feature ingredients high in zinc. Try out a few for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks!
Summary: Vegan Zinc
Zinc is an essential mineral that supports many critical functions in the body. It’s important for vegans to be aware of their zinc intake as zinc is limited in, and poorly absorbed from, plant-based foods.
Vegans can meet daily intake requirements for zinc by consuming high-zinc foods like legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Soaking, sprouting and fermenting foods can improve zinc absorption; avoiding iron supplements at meals is also likely helpful.
If needs aren’t met through diet, vegans may want to consult with their primary care provider to discuss zinc supplements.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
- Zinc and vegetarian diets
- Zinc: Fact sheet for health professionals
- Role of zinc and copper in erythropoiesis in patients on hemodialysis
- Zinc and oxidative stress: Current mechanisms
- Dietary reference intakes: Reference values for elements
- Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for zinc (EFSA)
- Vitamin and mineral status in a vegan diet
- High compliance with dietary recommendation in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: Results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Oxford study
- Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns
- Micronutrient status and intake in omnivores, vegetarians and vegans in Switzerland
- Role of zinc in mucosal health and disease: A review of physiological, biochemical and molecular processes
- Dietary factors influencing zinc absorption
- Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains
- Phytate in foods and significance for humans: Food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis
- Foods to which vitamins, mineral nutrients and amino acids may or must be added
- Canadian nutrient file
This reference list is not intended to be comprehensive.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.