Although the importance of zinc on a vegan diet is sometimes overlooked, zinc is a critical nutrient. Zinc is a mineral that can be challenging to consume and absorb in adequate amounts from vegan food sources.
There’s no need to become deficient in zinc, or any other nutrient, on a vegan diet. With careful planning, a vegan diet can support nutrient needs for all stages of life. Keep reading to learn:
- What is Zinc?
- What Does Zinc Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Requirements of Zinc for Vegans
- Zinc Deficiency
- Zinc Toxicity: Consuming Too Much Zinc
- How to Consume Enough Zinc as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Zinc
- Zinc Supplements for Vegans
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What is Zinc?
Zinc is an essential mineral and important to consider on a vegan diet.
When it comes to vegan nutrition, two common issues are that (1) vegan foods don’t contain a lot of certain nutrients, or (2) certain nutrients are harder to absorb from plant-based foods.
With zinc, people run into both issues. Plants contain zinc, but in smaller amounts compared to animal products. Zinc is also more challenging to absorb from plant-based foods. Therefore, it’s important to plan a well-balanced diet that will meet zinc needs.
What Does Zinc Do in the Body?
Zinc primarily acts as a cofactor for enzyme reactions and is needed to help with at least fifty reactions in the body 1. Some of the functions of zinc include:
- Metabolism of protein, fat and carbs. Without adequate zinc, the body will have difficulty using food as fuel.
- Zinc is an important nutrient for the functioning of the immune system.
- Healthy red blood cells. Zinc is needed to help make hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in blood.
- Zinc helps fight oxidation. Oxidation can be damaging to cells, so it’s important to have enough zinc to work with other nutrients and fight oxidation.
- Proper cell division and growth in children. Without adequate zinc, cells may not divide properly. This is especially critical in pregnancy and active, growing children.
- Sexual maturation of men. Zinc is important for males and females, but males have higher requirements for zinc as zinc is needed for testosterone and sperm production.
Daily Intake Requirements of Zinc for Vegans
The recommended daily intake of zinc is 11 mg/ day for males over 18 years, and 8 mg/ day for females over 18 years 3. These recommendations are for the general public who are assumed to consume a mixed diet that includes animal products.
However, dietary reference tables state that zinc requirements of vegetarians, especially strict vegetarians (i.e. vegans) is as much as 50% more than general targets 3. This is largely due to concerns with lack of absorption of zinc from vegan food sources.
Therefore, vegans may be better to aim for 16.5 mg/ day for males over 18 years, and 12 mg/ day for females over 18 years 3.
As with any nutrient, if people become deficient, it can impact any of that nutrient’s major functions. In children, zinc deficiency could lead to growth impairment. In male children, a deficiency in zinc can delay sexual maturation. In male adults, zinc deficiency could result in impotence (limited production of sperm cells). Other signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency include:
- Increased risk of infections and impaired immune system function
- Poor wound healing
- Hair loss
- Dermatitis (skin irritation, especially around mouth)
- Loss of appetite
Zinc Deficiency in Vegans
A 2013 meta-analysis showed that vegetarians had lower zinc intake and serum zinc concentration (lower zinc levels found in blood analysis) compared to those who ate an omnivorous diet 2.
While the study found a statistically significant difference, the results may not be clinically significant. On average, vegetarians were found to consume 0.88 mg of zinc less than omnivores 2. This is a very small amount of zinc compared to daily intake requirements.
This doesn’t mean vegans should ignore zinc intake or assume they consume enough. It’s still important to ensure adequate intake from foods (and possibly supplements if recommended by a healthcare professional).
Zinc Toxicity: Consuming Too Much Zinc
Consuming too much zinc does not happen from food sources alone; however it is possible from supplements. The upper limit recommended from food and supplements combined is 40 mg/ day for men and women over 19 years 3.
I have seen many zinc supplements that are higher than 40 mg (often they are 50 mg or more) so care needs to be taken if deciding to go on a zinc supplement. As always, speak with your doctor before starting any supplements.
How to Consume Enough Zinc as a Vegan
Consuming enough zinc on a vegan diet requires a bit of planning to ensure adequate amounts are eaten. Since there are also concerns with absorption of zinc, implementing techniques to enhance zinc absorption can also be beneficial.
There are ways to minimize phytic acid in plant-based foods high in zinc. Research shows these methods lead to a subsequent increase in the amount of zinc absorbed by the body:
- Fermentation: fermenting foods, such as the process that makes tempeh, miso paste, or sourdough bread is one way to minimize phytates in vegan food sources of zinc 1, 5.
- Leavening: leavening bread (i.e. using yeast) is another way found to increase absorption of zinc on a vegan diet 1, 2, 5. Most bread products are leavened, although choosing whole grain bread is important to ensure there is adequate zinc present to absorb.
- Soaking: soaking beans, whole grains, and even nuts or seeds before consumption can release some of the phytate and therefore increase the ability of the body to absorb zinc from these vegan foods 1, 5. If you cook your own legumes, it’s recommended to soak them before cooking and the same can be done for grains. After soaking, drain the soaking liquid and rinse the food before eating or cooking.
- Sprouting: sprouting grains and legumes is becoming a common practice, and for good reason! Sprouting vegan foods high in zinc such as legumes and whole grains before eating them can improve zinc absorption 1, 5.
- Heating: cooking legumes and whole grains prior to eating them can minimize phytate content 1. It’s not common for humans to consume raw legumes or whole grains, so this common preparation method helps increase zinc absorption from vegan food sources. Toasting nuts and seeds before eating them even makes them tastier and increases absorption of zinc on a vegan diet 5.
Research suggests that taking an iron supplement with a meal containing zinc may decrease absorption of zinc 1. It may be a good idea to take iron supplements at a different time than a meal high in zinc.
Also, protein intake can boost absorption of zinc from a meal 1, 2. Most vegan food sources of zinc are also sources of protein, but vegetarians may run into issues. Casein, found in milk products, appears to inhibit zinc absorption 1. So if vegetarians are consuming dairy products with a meal that contains zinc, absorption may be lower.
Vegan Food Sources of Zinc
Vegan foods high in zinc include:
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils)
- Soy (including tofu, tempeh)
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains, especially oatmeal and wheat germ
When it comes to grain products, zinc is found in the outer layer called the germ. Grain germ is removed through processing (for example, when making white flour). In Canada many processed grains require fortification, however zinc is not one of the nutrients required to be fortified into refined grain products 4. Therefore, whole grains are a clear winner when it comes to zinc content.
Other food sources of zinc on a vegan diet include zinc fortified foods. Canadian breakfast cereals and mock meat products must be fortified with zinc, so these can be two good vegan food sources of zinc 4.
It’s also helpful to check the label of other vegan foods you purchase to see if they are fortified with zinc. Some plant-based milks are fortified with zinc, although it’s usually a small amount.
The following list contains the amount of zinc in certain vegan food sources. You could add the total amount of mg of zinc from this table to see if it meets your needs (as listed above).
|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|
|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|
|Whole grain pasta, cooked||250 ml/ 148 g||1.2|
|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|
Please note: this data was accessed from the Canadian Nutrient File which provides averages for nutrient content of food across the country 6. True zinc content varies depending on the soil the food is grown in.
As you can see, multiple servings of these foods are needed to meet daily zinc needs. Luckily all these foods, along with fruits and vegetables, are excellent staples for a healthy vegan diet.
Zinc Supplements for Vegans
Zinc supplements are only necessary for vegans who do not meet their intake needs from food alone or have increased needs for zinc (ex. pregnancy, lactation, some illnesses, etc.) and can’t meet their increased needs through food. A vegan zinc supplement can be taken up to the recommended daily amount after speaking with your doctor 2. Remember the upper limit for zinc intake is 40 mg per day for males and females over 19 years 3. As noted above, many zinc supplements are over this upper limit. Zinc could be harmful over this limit 3.
Zinc gluconate may be the best choice when looking for a zinc supplement as there is evidence that it’s well absorbed 2. Zinc citrate may also be well absorbed 2. Zinc picolinate only has weak evidence to support that it’s absorbed well 2. Zinc oxide may not be absorbed well by some people and is likely not the best choice 2.
If it’s important for you to select a supplement that is fully vegan, there are other ingredients in the supplement that may be animal derived.
Summary: Zinc for Vegans
It’s possible to meet zinc needs from vegan food sources by carefully planning a diet that includes multiple vegan foods high in zinc. Zinc on a vegan diet can be a concern for those who do not consume adequate amounts of legumes, soy, whole grains, nuts or seeds. If a vegan does not consume enough zinc through food, a vegan zinc supplement can be considered by speaking with your doctor.
Certain components of a food or meal can decrease zinc absorption. To maximize absorption of zinc from vegan food sources, try soaking, cooking, sprouting, fermenting and/ or leavening the foods you eat that are high in zinc. Include adequate amounts of protein at each meal to help zinc absorption, and avoid iron supplements and dairy when consuming meals that contain vegan sources of zinc.
If you need help to plan a healthy vegan diet that meets nutrient needs, consider working with a vegan Registered Dietitian!
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- Zinc and vegetarian diets
- Dietary Reference Intakes – Reference Values for Elements
- Foods to Which Vitamins, Mineral Nutrients and Amino Acids May or Must be Added
- Getting Enough Zinc on Vegan Diets
- Canadian Nutrient File (CNF) – Search by food
- Effect of Vegetarian Diets on Zinc Status: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies in Humans
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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