Zinc is an essential trace mineral that plays a role in more than a hundred enzymatic reactions in the body, which is why consuming foods high in zinc is so important. It’s needed in small amounts every day in order to maintain your health and perform important functions. Zinc benefits come from its presence within all bodily tissue — it’s needed for healthy cell division, and it acts like an antioxidant, fighting free radical damage and slowing the aging process.
Zinc deficiency is now known to be a major malnutrition problem worldwide, and inadequate intake of foods high in zinc is one of the main causes. Compared to adults, infants, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women are most at risk for a zinc deficiency. These groups have increased requirements for zinc, so it’s important that they consume enough foods high in zinc every day or, in the case of infants, get it from breast milk.
Other groups of people that are at a higher risk for zinc deficiency include vegetarians and vegans, endurance athletes, alcoholics, people with gastrointestinal diseases, those who over-consume iron supplements, and people taking diuretic medications. The good news is if people consume enough foods high in zinc, like the 10 I list below, they can prevent inadequate zinc levels.
Top 10 Foods High in Zinc
Consume two to three servings of these zinc foods daily to support optimal zinc levels.
1. Lamb: 3 ounces: 6.7 milligrams (45 percent DV)
Lamb is a rich source of many vitamins minerals. In addition to zinc, lamb contains vitamin B12, riboflavin, selenium, niacin, phosphorus and iron. (1)
2. Pumpkin Seeds: 1 cup: 6.6 milligrams (44 percent DV)
Pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil are able to reduce the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women, according to research published in Nutrition and Cancer. (2) Pumpkin seeds are also good for prostate health, and they promote your mental health.
3. Grass-Fed Beef: 100 grams: 4.5 milligrams (30 percent DV)
Grass-fed beef nutrition includes omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, a powerful polyunsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to help fight cancer, reduce the risk of heart disease, improve blood sugar, discourage weight gain and build muscle. (3)
4. Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans): 1 cup: 2.5 milligras (17 percent DV)
Chickpeas, like all legumes, are a form of complex carbohydrates that the body is able to slowly digest and use for energy. Chickpeas increase satiety and help with weight loss. (4) They also improve digestion by quickly moving foods through the digestive tract.
5. Cocoa Powder: 1 ounce: 1.9 milligrams (13 percent DV)
Cocoa powder is a good source of two flavonoids, epicatechin and catechin, which function as antioxidants that help prevent inflammation and disease. Because of the presence of flavonoids in cocoa powder, it helps improve blood flow and lower blood pressure too. (5)
6. Cashews: 1 ounce: 1.6 milligrams (11 percent DV)
Cashews are rich in unsaturated fatty acids and high in protein. Cashews nutrition helps fight heart disease, reduce inflammation, promote bone health and support healthy brain function. Plus, these nuts help with weight loss or maintenance because they make you feel fuller and curb food cravings. (6)
7. Kefir or Yogurt: 1 cup: 1.4 milligrams (10 percent DV) (values vary)
Kefir and yogurt are cultured dairy products that serve as probiotic foods. Both kefir and probiotic yogurt support healthy digestion, boost the immune system, promote cardiovascular health and regulate your mood. (7)
8. Mushrooms: 1 cup: 1.4 milligrams (9 percent DV)
Proven mushroom nutrition benefits include the ability to boost immunity due to its antioxidant activities, reduce inflammation, fight cancer, protect your heart and improve brain function. (8)
9. Spinach: 1 cup: 1.4 milligrams (9 percent DV)
Spinach is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence. It contains special protective carotenoids that have been linked with decreasing the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and even cancer. (9)
10. Chicken: 100 grams: 1 milligram (7 percent DV)
In addition to the zinc present in chicken, it’s also a good source of B vitamins, including vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6 and pantothenic acid. The vitamin B12 in chicken helps maintain energy levels, boost mood, maintain heart health and boost skin health. (10)
Top Health Benefits of Zinc and Foods High in Zinc
1. Work as a Powerful Antioxidant
Zinc is an effective antioxidant. It helps fight oxidative stress and decrease your chances of developing a number of serious diseases, including cancer.
Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that after zinc supplementation for 12 months, oxidative stress markers were significantly lower in participants ages 55 to 87 years. The zinc-supplemented group also experienced fewer infections than the placebo group. (11)
2. Boost Eye Health
Zinc is needed to covert vitamin A into its active form in order to maintain proper vision. Adequate intake of foods high in zinc can help improve night vision and symptoms of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. This is due to zinc’s ability to reduce oxidation and inflammation, which are associated with diminished eye health. (12)
3. Enhance Immune Function
The body needs zinc to activate T-cells, which are critical for proper immune function, and that is why people who are deficient in zinc tend to more susceptible to a variety of illnesses. The role that zinc plays in DNA replication also helps the immune system make new cells when they’re needed.
Zinc is often taken as a natural cold remedy. Research shows that it can interfere with the molecular process that causes mucus and bacteria to build within the nasal passages. A 2013 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that zinc taken within 24 hours of onset of cold symptoms reduced the duration of symptoms in healthy people. (13)
4. Promote Wound Healing
Zinc benefits the integrity of the skin and helps treat infections. People who have actively healing wounds tend to have low levels of zinc and therefore may need supplementation. If you have any type of burn, cut or injury, consider increasing your intake of foods high in zinc to promote healing. (14)
5. Balance Hormones and Support Reproductive Health
Zinc plays an important role in hormone production. It’s needed for the production of estrogen and progesterone in women, which both support reproductive health. It also increases testosterone naturally, which has many roles for both men and women.
Advanced deficiency of zinc can impair motility and number of sperm. Research shows that oxidative damage, which is linked with poor sperm quality, can be minimized when the body gets enough zinc. (15)
Zinc is also needed to balance insulin, the main hormone involved in the regulation of normal blood sugar. Zinc binds to insulin so it’s adequately stored in the pancreas and released when glucose enters the bloodstream. Zinc also allows for the proper utilization of digestive enzymes that are necessary for insulin to bind to cells so glucose is used as fuel for the body, instead of being stored as fat.
6. Promote Muscle Growth and Repair
Zinc plays a crucial role in cell division and cell growth, so it’s needed to maintain strength in the muscular and skeletal systems. Zinc also helps with the release of testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1, all of which build muscle mass and help you maintain a healthy metabolism. (16)
7. Aids in Nutrient Absorption
Zinc affects protein synthesis and is needed by the body to use amino acids from food. It’s also involved in the breakdown of carbohydrates from foods, which are some of the main sources of energy from the body. This is why a zinc deficiency can lead to low energy levels and contribute to adrenal or chronic fatigue. (17)
8. Promote Heart Health
Zinc is needed to maintain the health of cells within the cardiovascular system, while also lowering inflammation and oxidative stress. The thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels, called the endothelium, partially relies on adequate levels of zinc. Zinc is also used to support healthy circulation, reduce high blood pressure and regulate cholesterol levels. (18)
Dangers of Low Zinc
Animal foods are better sources of zinc than plant foods, like vegetables, because zinc bioavailability (the fraction of zinc that’s retained and used by the body) is high in zinc foods like meat, eggs and seafood. This is due to the absence of compounds that inhibit zinc absorption in animal foods and the presence of sulfur-containing amino acids that improve zinc absorption, like cysteine and methionine. (19)
Although there are plant-based zinc foods, they’re less bioavailable because of their high content of phytic acid (or phytates), which inhibits zinc absorption. Reports suggest that people who don’t eat meat or animal products, like people on a vegetarian or vegan diet, need up to 50 percent more zinc in their diets to absorb what the body needs. However, the inhibitory effects of phytic acid on the absorption of zinc can be minimized with methods like soaking, heating, sprouting, fermenting and leavening. Research shows that the absorption of zinc can be improved by using yeast-based breads and sourdough breads, sprouts, and presoaked legumes. (20)
According to the USDA, the dietary reference intakes for zinc below are based on age and gender: (21)
- 0–6 months: 2 milligrams/day
- 7–12 months: 3 milligrams/day
- 1–3 years: 3 milligrams/day
- 4–8 years: 5 milligrams/day
- 9 –13 years: 8 milligrams/day
Adolescents and adults:
- Males age 14 and over: 11 milligrams/day
- Females age 14 to 18 years: 9 milligrams/day
- Females age 19 and over: 8 milligrams/day
According to the World Health Organization, millions of people throughout the world may have inadequate levels of zinc in their diets. In fact, zinc deficiency is ranked the fifth-leading risk factor in causing disease worldwide. (22) It occurs when you don’t have enough zinc foods in your diet or you have trouble absorbing zinc from foods due to digestive disorders or very poor gut health.
Zinc deficiency affects many organ systems, including the immune, gastrointestinal, skeletal, reproductive, integumentary and central nervous systems. (23)
Low zinc levels have been associated with the following health conditions:
- attention and motor disorders
- digestive problems
- hormonal imbalance
- nerve dysfunction
- weak immunity
- autoimmune disease
- thinning hair
- nutrient malabsorption
- leaky gut
- skin rashes and acne
Recipes with Foods High in Zinc
To be sure that you consume enough zinc to avoid a deficiency and experience these benefits, eat two to three servings of zinc foods every day. Here are some easy and healthy recipes that will help to boost your zinc intake:
- Steak Fajitas Recipe: These steak fajitas are made with grass-fed beef, plus spices like cumin and paprika, which help fight inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Baked Italian Chicken Recipe: This recipe calls for three zinc foods: organic chicken, mushrooms and spinach.
- Socca Recipe: This paleo pizza is made with chickpea flour, so it’s a good source of zinc and completely gluten-free. This is a great option for people who follow a vegetarian diet.
- Spinach Artichoke Dip: Use kefir and spinach, two foods that are high in zinc, to make this healthy version of a spinach artichoke dip.
Final Thoughts on Foods High in Zinc
- Zinc is an essential trace mineral that plays a role in more than a hundred enzymatic reactions in the body. It’s needed for healthy cell division, and it acts like an antioxidant, fighting free radical damage and slowing the aging process.
- Zinc deficiency is now known to be an important malnutrition problem worldwide, and inadequate intake of zinc foods is one of the main causes. Compared to adults, infants, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women are most at risk for a zinc deficiency.
- Most foods high in zinc come from animals, such as grass-fed beef, lamb and chicken, but there are also plant-based foods that contain zinc, including chickpeas and sunflower seeds.
- Eating enough zinc foods boosts your eye health, reduces inflammation, fights oxidative stress, boosts the health of your heart and skin, promotes muscle growth, and helps balance your hormones.