Zinc is an important nutrient with a complicated story. Our body utilizes zinc in a variety of ways. In fact, the mineral helps stimulate the activity of more than 100 enzymes. It also supports proper immune function; plays a role ensuring normal growth; and even helps neurons communicate, thereby enabling memory formation and learning. Studies have even shown that zinc can help stave off age-related chronic illness by combating systemic inflammation. So where do we find this powerful mineral?
Zinc is available from a wide-range of plant-foods, including legumes, tempeh, and tofu along with many nuts, seeds, and grains. It can also be derived from a variety of fortified-products, like plant-based milks, many cereals and even certain meat-substitutes. If zinc is so common, why are the serum levels of zinc often low for people following a plant-based diet?
The critical point to realize is that, just because you’re ingesting a nutrient, doesn’t mean that you’re absorbing it. There are innumerable factors regulating how much of a substance actually enters your bloodstream: the amount of gut acid available to breakdown a food and pull out the active components; the specific chemical form of those nutrients; whether you’re currently deficient in that nutrient; and even the other items consumed at the same time. There are also “blocking-agents” that partially inhibit the uptake of specific nutrients, which brings us back to zinc.
Many foods that are rich in zinc also contain phytates, which hinder our body’s ability to absorb zinc. Some doctors suggest that, as a result, vegans and vegetarians may need to increase their zinc intake by as much as 50% in order to compensate for the diminished absorption.
There are ways to maximize absorption — like soaking and sprouting beans and grains and roasting nuts, which reduces the level of phytates. Yet, given the importance of zinc in so many diverse bodily functions, and the potential complications with absorption, it is important to be mindful of the amount consumed each day. If you’re concerned about getting enough zinc, make sure you are eating zinc-rich plant foods each day. You can also take steps like soaking and sprouting to reduce phytates when preparing foods at home, and consider supplemental forms of zinc to boost your stores.