Zinc Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that is a cofactor for hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the human body.  

Zinc nutrient is critical to various functions, including immunity, reproduction, skin health, digestion, cognition, antioxidant formation, and vision.  

Zinc Deficiency Symptoms

A large portion of the population is at risk of becoming zinc deficient.  This results from a combination of factors, including the overconsumption of processed foods, nutrient-poor soils, and weakened digestion.

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.  Insufficient food availability affects an estimated two billion people worldwide.

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 high in phytates and low 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.

How do you know if you have a zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency symptoms include:

Good Food Sources of Zinc

Zinc is found in a variety of foods, although it’s most concentrated in animal sources.  

Shellfish, liver, and non-starchy green vegetables have been found to have the highest contents of zinc, as listed in our zinc-rich food list below.  

Keep in mind here that animal-based sources of zinc are also more bioavailable.

Seafood Sources of Zinc

Seafood is arguably the best source of zinc, and they are well-absorbed.  Seafood also contains the minerals copper and iron, which are synergistic nutrients to zinc.

  • oysters
  • crab
  • crayfish
  • squid
  • shrimp
  • anchovy

Animal Sources of Zinc

Animal foods are relatively bioavailable sources of zinc.  Certain dairy products have higher amounts of zinc, meaning vegetarians can get their fix of zinc, too.

  • ground beef 
  • beef liver
  • beefsteak (sirloin, filet mignon)
  • parmesan cheese
  • milk 
  • whole egg
  • brie
  • cottage cheese 

Plant-Based Sources 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 levels are not as well-absorbed or high as animal foods.

  • parsley
  • asparagus 
  • zucchini
  • broccoli 
  • lettuce
  • cucumber
  • kale 
  • cauliflower
  • sauerkraut
  • pumpkin sedsseeds

See the complete zinc-foods list titled Top 101 Foods High In Zinc at Nutrient Optimiser for more details.

Zinc-Rich Recipes

Some examples of our most zinc-rich NutriBooster recipes include:

Can Zinc Deficiencies Cause 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 Require Daily?

Our satiety analysis indicates a moderate 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. 

However, more zinc is not necessarily better, especially when it comes from supplements rather than whole food. Beyond about 35 mg/2000 calories of zinc, energy intake starts to drift back up with more zinc.

The chart below shows the distribution of zinc for our Optimisers, with an intake of 17 mg/2000 calories and the 85th percentile of 25 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 balancing vitamins and minerals naturally in foods.  You will quickly excrete any excess zinc in the faeces.  However, an Upper Limit of 40 mg has been set for supplemental zinc

Zinc Stretch Target

Based on our satiety analysis, we have set a zinc stretch target of 25 mg/day for men and 20 mg/day for women. 

nutrient menwomen
zinc (mg)2520

Availability of Zinc In The Diet

Zinc availability in the food system has increased since the fortification of breakfast cereals began in the 1930s.  The chart below shows a significant jump in zinc fortification in the mid-1970s (data from USDA Economic Research Service).

Despite the sharp increase from fortification, the current average zinc level in the diet still does not meet the Daily Recommended Intake or Estimated Average Requirement and is nowhere near our Optimal Nutrient Intake.  Thus, most people need to be attentive to their zinc intake and ensure they’re consuming enough to achieve more ideal levels. 

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.  So simply adding a zinc supplement to a low-nutrient diet will not make you feel any fuller.

What Factors Interfere With Zinc Absorption?

Although you may be hitting your stretch target of daily zinc on paper, your body might not be absorbing all of it.  Several factors are known to inhibit or lessen zinc uptake in the body.

Storage

Zinc is resistant to spoilage, so your food will go bad before the zinc content changes significantly.

Synergistic nutrients

Zinc works synergistically with vitamins A, B6, D, 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. 

Processing Losses

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 that they need each other to support and reinforce one another’s roles.

Foods high in zinc like seafood and meat also contain iron.  Because these nutrients exist in near-perfect ratios in natural foods, it is relatively harder to disrupt this ratio unless you are supplementing either iron or zinc.  Fortified foods can also become tricky in this sense as they’re often not supplying balanced nutrients.

While both nutrients are important, our satiety analysis shows that foods that naturally contain more iron than zinc tend to lead to greater satiety. The average zinc:iron ratio of Optimiesrs is 1.3, however it appears that people who consume more iron than zinc consume 8% fewer calories.

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 not enough zinc is common in vegan and vegetarian diets because zinc is sparse, and copper is readily found in grains, nuts, and other plant foods.

Studies have shown that an optimal zinc: copper ratio of 10:1 to 15:1 supports optimal health.   The average zinc:copper ratio of our optimiesrs is 11.8. However, it appears that consuming more zinc relative to copper aligns with consuming 5% fewer calories.

While these micronutrient ratios are difficult to manage in practice, Nutrient Optimiser ensures that you do not prioritise more zinc in your diet if you already have enough copper. 

Nutrient Profile of Zinc Rich Foods

The nutrient fingerprint shows the availability of nutrients in foods that contain the most zinc.  It is possible to get adequate levels of zinc from nutrient-dense foods without the use of supplements.  Foods high in zinc are generally nutrient-dense, have a lower energy density, and contain significant protein levels. 

How Can I Calculate My Nutrient Intake?

If you’re interested in checking if you’re getting just enough dietary phosphorus, you can check your nutrient profile using our Free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge

After a week of tracking your current diet in CronometerNutrient Optimiser will give you a prioritised list of foods and NutriBooster recipes that will help you plug your current nutritional gaps.

Level Up Your Nutrient Density

To help you level up your nutrient density, we’ve prepared a Nutritional Optimisation Starter Pack to ensure you are getting plenty of all the essential nutrients from the food you eat every day.    

The free starter pack includes:

  • Maximum Nutrient Density Food List
  • Sample Maximum Nutrient Density Recipe Book
  • Sample Maximum Nutrient Density Meal Plan.

To get started today, all you have to do is join our new Optimising Nutrition Group here

Once you join, you will find the Nutritional Optimisation starter pack in the discovery section here.

Nutrient Density Index

Minerals

Vitamins

Essential fatty acids                      

Leave a Comment