The vegetarian diet has all kinds of healthy benefits: increased life span, decreased rate of early mortality, decrease risk of all sorts of cancers and heart disease, general increase in energy, and even increased overall happiness. For certain, the vegetarian diet has a huge impact on these health benefits, but it is not the only cause of them. By simply being vegetarian, you are probably more health conscious than the average person, which leads you to eat healthier foods and follow a better lifestyle.
There are some nutrients, though, that can be lacking in the vegetarian diet as a result of not consuming meat. Being conscious of these is important in maintaining vigor and optimum health. Zinc is an essential mineral that is found most densely in meat, and by cutting meat from the vegetarian diet, you’re also cutting out an important source of zinc. Not to worry, though, as there are plenty of vegetarian sources of zinc out there that can help you achieve proper levels in your body.
The Functions of Zinc
Zinc takes on a variety of roles in the body and is an essential mineral. It helps the brain function and nervous system function normally. It functions in the blood stream, where it helps promote cell reproduction, and more specifically in DNA and RNA replication. It promotes tissue growth. It also is part of many enzyme structures, making it essential to our proper immune system functions. In males, it is essential to the proper functioning of the reproductive system, being active in both the prostate and in semen.
The British Medical Journal cites that more than 2 billion people in the world are zinc deficient, and vegetarians are particularly at risk. It’s said that zinc deficiency contributes to 800,000 deaths per year – many of these children. Another study in The American Society for Clinical Nutrition (2003) showed that American vegetarians regularly have low levels of zinc, although the impacts on their actual health were debatable. Zinc, as studies have shown, can be difficult to pin down.
Some of the more mild symptoms associated with zinc deficiency are diarrhea, stunted growth in children, skin lesions, reduced appetite, lowered immune system, and impotence or delayed sexual maturation. All of these symptoms can compound other illnesses in the body, leading to greatly reduced overall health. Some of the more serious symptoms can lead to liver disease, sickle cell disease, and diabetes. Getting enough zinc is especially in children and pregnant women.
Vegetarian Sources of Zinc
The daily recommended intake of zinc is 15mg for men and women, and 10mg for children below the age of 11. Women who are currently lactating should try to work 19mg of zinc into their diet daily.
It is important to note that zinc is competitive with other minerals in the body for absorption. Cooper and selenium, in particular, do not absorb as readily with excessive zinc in the system. Copper and selenium are generally high in a health-conscious vegetarian diet, though, so if you’re eating a healthy diet, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this. One would have to ingest 100mg of zinc a day to cause any toxicity in the body, which is only an issue if you take excessive supplements.
Zinc supplements can be good for those who are transitioning to the vegetarian or vegan diet, to help soften the impact this change can have on the body. They should have anywhere between 15-20mg, roughly 100% of what you need daily. This can seem like a lot, but very little of this zinc will, in fact, be absorbed by the body.
It’s always best to get zinc from real food, though. Absorption rates are better, and the other nutrients that are absorbed from food synergize to create maximum health benefit. Here’s a list of vegetarian friendly zinc sources:
Lima Beans: ½ cup – 1mg
Lentils: ½ cup – 1.2mg
Tofu: ½ cup – 1mg
Tempeh: ½ cup – 1.5mg
Cow’s Milk: 1 cup – 1mg
Yogurt: 1 cup – 1.8mg
Almonds: 1oz. – 1.4mg
Cashews: 1 oz. – 1.6mg
Pecans: 1 oz. – 1.55mg
Sunflower Seeds 1 oz. – 1.44mg
Peas: ½ cup – 1mg
Seaweed (nori): ½ cup – 1.1mg
Wheat Germ: 2 tablespoons – 2.3mg
Bran Flakes: 1 cup – 5mg
So, there are plenty of sources to get your zinc from. Nuts, in particular, are great, as you only need 1 oz. (a small handful) to get relatively high amounts of zinc. Grab a little Tupperware and snack on them throughout the day, or throw a handful into the pasta sauce you’re cooking up for dinner.
In general, if you’re eating a highly varied and healthy vegetarian diet, chances are you’re getting plenty of the zinc you need for your body to perform at a high level. If not, though, being conscious of this nutrient may be a prudent decision.