Zinc is an essential mineral that is a cofactor for hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the human body.
Zinc is critical to various functions, including immunity, reproduction, skin health, digestion, cognition, antioxidant formation, and vision.
In this article, we’ll show you how to get the zinc you need using the tools and charts that our Optimisers use in the Micros Masterclass.
- Zinc-Rich Food Chart
- Zinc-Rich Foods (Per Serving)
- Zinc-Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
- Zinc-Rich Recipes
- Why Zinc is Important
- Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
- Factors Contributing to Zinc Deficiency
- Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
- Zinc and Lines on Your Fingernails
- Will Zinc Boost Your Libido?
- How Much Zinc Do We Need?
- Zinc Toxicity Level and Upper Limit
- Optimal Zinc Intake
- Availability of Zinc
- What Factors Interfere with Zinc Absorption?
- Synergistic nutrients
- Storage and Processing Losses
- The Iron:Zinc Ratio
- The Zinc:Copper Ratio
- How Can I Calculate if I am Getting Enough Zinc?
- Nutrient Density Starter Pack
- Nutrient Series
Zinc-Rich Food Chart
The chart below shows a range of popular foods in terms of zinc (per calorie) vs zinc (per serve). Foods towards the right will provide more zinc per calorie, while the foods towards the top will provide more zinc in the serving sizes we typically eat them.
Oysters are literally off the chart! Meanwhile, animal foods like beef, chicken and pork provide significant amounts of zinc, while non-starchy vegetables like mushrooms, spinach, endive and broccoli will help you get zinc with less energy.
For more detail, you can dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer), check out the food lists of popular foods below or download longer lists in our Optimising Nutrition Community here.
Zinc-Rich Foods (Per Serving)
The popular foods listed below will give you more zinc in the typical serving sizes we consume them in.
- ground beef
- beef steak
- chicken thigh
- chicken drumstick
- pork chops
- chicken wing
- Swiss cheese
- gouda cheese
- Edam cheese
- cheddar cheese
- Camembert cheese
- chicken breast
Seafood is arguably the best source of zinc, and they are well-absorbed. Seafood also contains copper and iron, which are synergistic nutrients to zinc.
Animal foods are relatively bioavailable sources of zinc. In addition, certain dairy products have higher amounts of zinc
Although nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and beans contain some zinc, it’s often absorbed poorly from these foods because of their phytic acid content. Green vegetables have some zinc, although their levels are not as well-absorbed or high as animal foods.
Zinc-Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
Foods highest in zinc per calorie tend to be green veggies like the ones listed below.
- beef steak
- ground beef
- coriander leaf
- chicken thigh
- chicken drumstick
- hemp seeds
- bok choy
The chart below shows our 1400+ NutriBooster recipes that we use in the Micros Masterclass plotted in terms of zinc vs protein %. Recipes towards the right will help you boost your zinc with fewer calories.
To dive into the detail, you can open the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer). Then, click on each recipe to learn more about it and view a picture of the recipe. Some examples of our NutriBooster recipes that contain the most zinc are shown below.
Why Zinc is Important
- Immune system function: Zinc plays a crucial role in immune cells’ normal development and function. It is necessary to activate and increase T-cells, which are important for fighting off infections and diseases.
- Growth and development: Zinc is essential for the growth and development of the human body. It is particularly important for children, as it is necessary to grow and develop organs, bones, and muscles.
- Wound healing: Zinc is necessary for wound healing, as it is involved in the production of new cells and the synthesis of collagen, a protein that helps form connective tissue and promote healing.
- Taste and smell: Zinc is necessary for the proper function of taste and smell receptors. Zinc deficiency can lead to a decreased ability to taste and smell.
- DNA synthesis and protein production: Zinc is necessary for the synthesis of DNA and the production of proteins, which are essential for proper cell function and growth.
- Antioxidant function: Zinc is a powerful antioxidant and protects cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can cause damage to cells and contribute to the development of diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
A large portion of the population is at risk of becoming zinc deficient, particularly in developing countries with less access to animal-based foods. However, in Western countries, zinc availability is influenced by the overconsumption of processed foods, nutrient-depleted soils, and weakened digestion. Insufficient food availability affects an estimated two billion people worldwide.
Dietary zinc deficiency is associated with impaired growth and development in children, pregnancy complications, and immune dysfunction, resulting in increased susceptibility to infections.
Low zinc levels have even been linked to autoimmunity and cancer. In addition, because zinc is vital for the health of sperm in men and overall reproductive health in men and women, zinc deficiency can contribute to infertility.
Factors Contributing to Zinc Deficiency
Zinc is found readily in animal products, making deficiency more common in developing countries where these foods are harder to obtain regularly.
Plant foods like beans, legumes, nuts, and grains contain phytates (phytic acid) that bind to zinc and other similar minerals, blocking their absorption. Consumption of diets that are high in phytates and low in animal-based foods can further exacerbate zinc deficiency.
The human body requires a somewhat acidic environment in the stomach to kick off protein breakdown and absorb zinc. If stomach acid becomes weak, zinc uptake and protein digestion can decrease. Stress, certain medications, and eating too many processed foods can reduce stomach acidity.
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
Zinc deficiency symptoms include:
- low testosterone,
- poor night vision,
- zinc-deficient acne,
- brittle nails,
- white spots on nails,
- loss of taste, smell, and appetite,
- decreased leptin levels,
- decreased immune function,
- low stomach acid,
- emotional disorders,
- hypogonadism, or the diminished production of sex hormones,
- low sperm counts,
- estrogen dominance,
- premenstrual disorder (PMS),
- slowed wound healing,
- stretch marks and increased scarring,
- increased susceptibility to infections,
- elevated histamine levels,
- hypercholesterolemia, and
- impaired cognitive function.
Zinc and Lines on Your Fingernails
Interestingly enough, your fingernails are a great indicator of varying nutrient deficiencies. Ridges in your fingernails can indicate that your body is low in protein, calcium, zinc, or vitamin A. Small white dots on your fingernails can also hint that you may not be getting enough zinc in your diet.
Will Zinc Boost Your Libido?
Zinc is vital to healthy testosterone production and the development and function of male sex organs. Males with zinc deficiency have been shown to have less developed testes and a lower sperm count.
Zinc supplements are often used as a treatment for erectile dysfunction because zinc is needed to produce sex hormones like testosterone and prolactin.
How Much Zinc Do We Need?
Our satiety analysis indicates a moderately significant satiety response when people consume foods and meals that contain more zinc. People who consume more optimal levels of zinc in their diet tend to consume 13% fewer calories.
Optimisers have an average zinc intake of 19 mg/2000 calories and the 85th percentile of 30 mg/2000 calories. This surpasses the Estimated Average Requirement of 12 mg/day for men and the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) of 14 mg/day.
Zinc Toxicity Level and Upper Limit
There is no evidence of any adverse effects from high amounts of zinc in foods. Hence, there are no real symptoms of toxicity or side effects. Nutrients like zinc are hard to ‘overdose’ from whole foods because of the natural balance of nutrients in whole foods. You will quickly excrete any excess zinc in the faeces. However, an Upper Limit of 40 mg has been set for supplemental zinc.
Optimal Zinc Intake
Based on the robust satiety response data, we have set a stretch target of 25 mg/2000 calories. Once you start to get the hang of nutrient density, you could ‘level up’ by working to achieve these stretch targets to optimise your nutrition. For more details, see:
Availability of Zinc
Zinc availability in the food system has increased since the fortification of breakfast cereals began in the 1930s. For example, the chart below shows a significant jump in zinc fortification in the mid-1970s (data from USDA Economic Research Service).
While supplementation and fortification may be helpful if you have deficiency symptoms, our analysis indicates that zinc fortification of otherwise nutrient-poor foods will not provide greater satiety.
What Factors Interfere with Zinc Absorption?
Although you may consume plenty of zinc on paper, your body might not absorb all of it. Several factors are known to inhibit or lessen zinc uptake in the body.
- The absorption of zinc can be decreased by excess sugar.
- Insufficient stomach acid, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and other disorders involving inflammation of the GI tract inhibit the absorption of various vitamins and minerals like zinc.
- Stress is perhaps one of the biggest inhibitors of stomach acid production and, therefore, can inhibit nutrient absorption across the board.
- Persistent infections like H. pylori are known to decrease stomach acid and inherently affect zinc uptake.
- Prolonged use of drugs like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) that decrease stomach acid can similarly reduce the body’s ability to absorb zinc.
- Excess calcium intake impairs zinc absorption, as does the consumption of too many phytates from nuts, beans, grains, and legumes.
- Iron and zinc compete for absorption pathways, so excess iron supplementation or fortified foods can negatively impact zinc absorption.
- If your ratio of iron:zinc is greater than 2:1, then your absorption of zinc will be reduced.
- Like iron and zinc, copper can also decrease zinc levels if consumed in excess.
- If your ratio of zinc:copper is consistently greater than 10:1 to 15:1, zinc deficiency can appear.
- Absorption from animal sources of zinc is much more readily available than plant sources, so strict vegans should account for an additional 50% of zinc in their diet.
- Exposure to heavy metals like cadmium or mercury can deplete zinc levels.
Zinc works synergistically with vitamins A, B6, D, and E, cysteine, glutathione, copper, magnesium and manganese. Hence, getting your zinc from nutrient-dense whole food sources that typically come packaged with these other nutrients is crucial.
Storage and Processing Losses
Zinc is resistant to spoilage, so your food will go bad before the zinc content changes significantly.
Zinc is also heat-stable, meaning it will not be destroyed through most cooking processes. However, you will lose some zinc via the liquid when cooking vegetables.
Soaking and sprouting beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, and grains may decrease phytate content and improve zinc bioavailability in plant foods.
The Iron:Zinc Ratio
Zinc and iron are two essential minerals, but their proportion to one another is important. Because the two minerals are antagonists (inhibit the absorption of one another), consuming too much of one can deplete the other. The two minerals are also synergists, meaning they need each other to support and reinforce one another’s roles.
Foods high in zinc, like seafood and meat, contain iron, too. Because these nutrients exist in near-perfect ratios in natural foods, it is relatively harder to disrupt this ratio than if someone is consuming a supplement of either iron or zinc or fortified foods.
The optimal iron: zinc ratio is less than 2:1, which can be monitored if you are logging your food and supplements in Cronometer.
The Zinc:Copper Ratio
While getting enough dietary zinc is undoubtedly important, the amount of zinc you’re taking in relative to the mineral copper is arguably just as necessary. Zinc and copper are also synergists and antagonists. Thus, overconsuming copper can contribute to lowered zinc levels.
Getting too much dietary copper and insufficient zinc is common in vegan and vegetarian diets because zinc is sparse, and copper is readily found in grains, nuts, and other plant foods. It’s also possible to get excessive amounts of copper from organ meats like liver and kidney.
Studies have shown that an optimal zinc:copper ratio of 10:1 to 15:1 supports optimal health. You can easily keep track of this ratio if you’re logging your food in Cronometer.
While these micronutrient ratios are difficult to manage in practice, chasing your priority micronutrients using Nutrient Optimiser ensures you do not prioritise more zinc in your diet if you already have enough copper.
For more details, see Nutrient Balance Ratios: Do They Matter and How Can I Manage Them?
How Can I Calculate if I am Getting Enough Zinc?
If you’re interested in determining if you’re getting just the right amount of zinc in your diet, you can check your nutrient profile using our Free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge.
After a week of tracking your current diet in Cronometer, Nutrient Optimiser will give you a prioritised list of foods and NutriBooster recipes that will help you plug your current nutritional gaps, including zinc.
Nutrient Density Starter Pack
We’re eager to make the process of Nutritional Optimisation as simple as possible. To help you increase your intake of all the essential nutrients, including zinc, when you join our free Optimising Nutrition Community, you’ll get a starter pack that includes:
When you join our free Optimising Nutrition Community, you’ll get a starter pack that includes:
- Food Lists – optimised for each essential nutrient, goals, preferences and conditions.
- The Healthiest Meal Plan in the World – see what a week of nutrient-dense eating looks like.
- Recipes – check out samples of each of our NutriBosoter recipe books.
- 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge – identify your priority nutrients and the foods and meals that contain them.
- Biotin (B7)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Thiamine (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Pantothenic acid (B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Folate (B9)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K1
- Vitamin K2