Zinc is a mineral that is essential to health and wellness, but unfortunately, its role in the body is poorly understood by the general population. Why is zinc so important? Why do we need to make sure we obtain an adequate amount of zinc every day? And what happens when we don't get enough zinc in our diet?
A behind-the-scenes player, zinc is involved in a number of processes in the body including DNA synthesis, cellular division, immune system response, and wound healing. Zinc is also involved in processing taste and smell and is required for proper growth and development during pregnancy and in children and adolescents. While the details of the exact role zinc plays in keeping us healthy are still being explored, we do know that it is a critical component in many aspects of how our bodies are able to fight off infection.
People who don't get enough zinc in their diet have a less robust immune response when challenged with an infection, whether that be a bout of diarrhea, a cold, or the flu. This is why it's so important that people include foods containing zinc in their regular diet, as zinc is not stored in the body as some other nutrients might be. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include loss of appetite, delayed wound healing, growth retardation, and impaired immune function. As these symptoms are vague and may also be associated with other conditions, it is important to see your healthcare provider should you suspect a zinc deficiency and are experiencing these symptoms.
Another way in which zinc can be beneficial to the immune system is by healing from the outside. When applied topically as zinc oxide, zinc has been found to help heal wounds after an injury or surgery. It can also be highly effective in treating minor skin irritations. And mothers and caregivers have been using zinc to treat babies who are prone to developing diaper rash on their bottoms for generations.
So what food choices can we include in our regular diet to support our need for zinc? Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. Other meat-based sources of zinc include red meat, poultry products, crab, and lobster. There are plenty of decent plant-based sources of zinc as well - mushrooms, spinach, nuts and seeds (cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds), legumes (chickpeas, lima beans, peas), avocados, and pomegranates. Dark chocolate can also be an excellent source of zinc.
While zinc deficiency is rare in the United States, there are special patient populations that need to pay closer attention to their zinc intake. Pregnant and nursing women are at risk because the developing fetus or nursing infant utilizes a significant amount of zinc for growth and development. Vegetarians must also make special effort to include foods that contain enough zinc. The zinc found in plants is not as readily bioavailable as the zinc found in animal products, so vegetarians may need more zinc in their food choices because not all of what is consumed will be available to the body for use. People who have impaired GI systems (such as Crohn's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis) are also at risk for zinc deficiency. This is because zinc is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, and if it is not functioning properly, zinc may pass through the GI tract without being absorbed.
Fortunately, more research is being conducted to learn the specifics on the roles that zinc plays in the human body. In the meantime, maintain a general awareness of the foods you eat so you can provide your body with this essential mineral.