Zinc is a mineral that’s essential for health.
It’s naturally found in some foods, added to others, and is available as a dietary supplement.
It’s a pretty amazing mineral too! Think of it as an awesome multi-tasker.
Zinc is a cofactor (enables enzymes to do their jobs) that is needed for over 300 different biochemical reactions and is involved in many biological functions in your body (1, 2).
Some of these functions include maintaining our sense of taste and smell, making new proteins, wound healing, immune function, DNA synthesis, and repair, and more (3, 4, 5, 6).
Zinc supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence too (7, 8, 9).
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Optimizing your zinc status
Because your body can’t store zinc as it can with calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus (stored in bones and teeth), you need to make sure you get adequate amounts of zinc on a daily basis (10).
The recommended daily intake of zinc is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. It’s a little higher for pregnant women, 11 mg per day, and if you’re breastfeeding, you’ll need 12 mg daily.
Some people are at a greater risk for zinc deficiency and include those with gastrointestinal (gut) disorders (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s and short bowel syndrome) and those with chronic liver disease.
Other risk factors include malabsorption syndrome, chronic renal disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, malignancy, and other chronic illnesses, vegans and vegetarians, and chronic alcohol consumers.
Some evidence suggests that zinc intakes among older adults might be marginal. NHANES III data found that 35%–45% of adults aged 60 years or older had zinc intakes below the recommended amount. Even when considering intakes from both food and dietary supplements, they found that 20%–25% of older adults still had inadequate zinc intakes (11).
Getting more zinc is easy. I will always recommend a good quality, broad-spectrum multivitamin with minerals to help bridge the gap while encouraging eating more rich-foods such as the ones listed below.
Here are 11 of the best food sources of zinc
Getting more zinc is both easy and delicious, check out these awesome foods sources! 🙂
By far the single best source of zinc in the human diet!
A 75 g (2.5 oz) serving of Eastern wild, cooked has 46-59 mg of zinc. Farmed has a little less with 33 mg per 75 g and Pacific, cooked with 25 mg for the same 75 g serving (12).
Smoked oysters have the same as the Eastern wild with 56 g per 75 g or 63 g for a whole 85 g tin.
In terms of everyday serving sizes, 6 medium oysters providing 32 mg, or 281% of the DV (Daily Value).
Meats, in general, are another excellent source of zinc (12, 13).
Red meat, in particular, is a rich source of highly bioavailable zinc but so are other meats like lamb, veal, bison, and pork.
While not considered a ‘meat’, animals that have a more meat-like texture and flavour, such as emu and ostrich, also have a decent amount of zinc, between 2-4.3 mg per 100 g serving.
The amount of zinc in beef will vary based on the cut. A 100 g (3.5 oz) serving of raw ground beef has 4.8 mg (14). Generally speaking, various cuts of cooked beef will have 5.3-11 mg per 100 g (12).
Legumes, which has traditionally been used to refer to chickpeas, beans, lentils, etc, but “legume” really refers to plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod.
These include fresh peas and beans, soybeans and peanuts.
Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes and the most common ones are lentils, dried beans and peas, and chickpeas.
The zinc content of common legumes and pulses per 1 cup (250 ml) are (15):
- Fresh peas: 1.8 mg
- Soybeans: 1.6 mg
- Peanuts: 4.8 mg
- Chickpeas: 2.5 mg
- Lentils: 2.5 mg
- Dried peas (split peas): 2 mg
- Dried beans (average): 2 mg
Vegan and vegetarian considerations
The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from non-vegetarian diets because vegetarians do not eat meat, which is high in bioavailable zinc and may enhance zinc absorption.
In addition, vegetarians typically eat high levels of legumes and whole grains, which contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption (16, 17).
Vegetarians sometimes require as much as 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians (18). Major food staples such as grains and legumes contain high levels of phytate which can reduce zinc absorption. Zinc requirements for vegetarians whose diets are high in phytate may exceed the RDA.
While overt or clinical zinc deficiency has not been seen in Western vegetarians, the effects of marginal intakes (a.k.a. functional deficiencies) of zinc are poorly understood and likely underappreciated.
In addition, they might benefit from using certain food preparation techniques that reduce the binding of zinc by phytates and increase its bioavailability.
Techniques to increase zinc bioavailability include soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them and allowing them to sit after soaking until sprouts form (19).
Seeds can be a decent source of zinc.
Some of the best sources are hemp seeds which have about 3.4 mg per 3 Tbsp (30 g) serving (20).
Other good sources are squash and pumpkin seeds which have 1.65 mg per 1/4 cup or 4 Tbsp (16 g) serving (21).
Sesame seeds have 2.0 mg per 28.5 g (1 oz) serving or about 2 Tbsp (22).
Eating nuts such as pine nuts, peanuts, almonds can boost your intake of zinc. So can cashews, which aren’t technically a nut, but is grouped with them as we eat and use cashews like we do tree nuts.
If you’re looking for the best source of zinc, cashews are a good choice. A 1-ounce (28-gram) serving contains 15% of the Daily Value (DV) (23).
Poultry is another good source of highly bioavailable zinc with chicken breast (cooked) providing 1 mg per 100 g serving.
Like other dark meats on birds, poultry legs are higher in minerals compared to breast meat. A 100 g serving of chicken leg provides 2.9 mg of zinc.
Pork is another good source of zinc. Ham has 2.6 g of zinc per 100 g serving (24).
Other cuts are also good sources of zinc that are easily absorbed. Composite analysis of different cuts (leg, loin, shoulder, and spareribs) provides an average of 2.9 mg per 100 g serving (25).
On a side note, pork is one of the best sources of vitamin B3, or niacin too (25).
Shellfish are a healthy source of zinc. Some types of shellfish contain less zinc than oysters (the best source of zinc) but are still good sources.
For example, Alaskan crab contains 7.6 mg per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), which is 69% of the DV (26).
Smaller shellfish like shrimp and mussels are also good sources, both containing 14% of the DV per 100 grams (3.5 oz) (27, 28).
Eggs contain a moderate amount of zinc that can help you improve your zinc bottom line.
Two large eggs contain around 1.2 mg of zinc or 11-15% of the DV (29).
Whole eggs are also an important source of choline, a nutrient that most people aren’t getting enough of and one of my obsessions which is why I included here.
Dairy foods like cheese and milk are best known for their calcium content, and perhaps to a lesser extent, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin A but dairy also has zinc.
Milk and cheese are two standout dairy-based sources of highly bioavailable zinc (30).
For example, 100 grams of cheddar cheese contains about 28% of the DV or 2.2-3 mg, while a single cup of full-fat milk contains around 9%, or 1 mg (31, 32).
Liver is an underappreciated food. It used to be consumed regularly throughout human history, up until about the 1960s or so.
Before iron supplements were available, liver was safely and routinely recommended for pregnant women to treat and prevent iron deficiency.
Liver provides lots of essential nutrients like vitamin A, choline, iron, vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B12, B9 (folate), and copper.
And of course, liver is an excellent source of zinc.
There is 11-12 mg of zinc per 100 g of cooked veal liver. A composite average of other types of liver (beef, chicken, lamb, pork), provides about 3-6 mg per 100 g serving (33).
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Zinc is an essential mineral, and getting enough is important for maintaining good health, not the least of which is supporting a healthy immune system and a sense of taste and smell.
The best way to ensure you are getting enough is to eat a varied diet with good sources of zinc, such as meats, liver, dark meat poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, legumes, and dairy.
These foods can be easy and delicious additions to your diet.
If you’re concerned about not getting enough zinc in your diet are at risk of zinc deficiency, consider speaking to a qualified health practitioner about the possibility of taking a supplement.
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.