Food or supplement: Which is best for getting your zinc?

Healthy product sources of zinc. Food rich in Zn

 For almost two years since Covid-19 arrived, we’ve heard a lot about the supplementation of certain nutrients for protection from the virus. One, in particular, is the mineral zinc.  Why zinc and which is the best source of it – food or a supplement?

Understanding zinc

Zinc is found in a very small amount in the human body but has a big job working with proteins in every organ and tissue.  This essential mineral – the human body is unable to make zinc so you must get it from either food sources of it or as a supplement – helps more than 50 enzymes to:

  • Protect cell structures against damage from oxidation
  • Make parts of the cells’ genetic material
  • Makes heme in hemoglobin
  • Assists the pancreas with its digestive and insulin functions
  • Helps metabolize carbohydrate, protein, and fat
  • Produce an active form of vitamin A in visual pigments
  • Assists in proper immune function
  • Aids in and is essential for wound healing, sperm production, taste perception, normal metabolic rate, nerve and brain functioning, bone growth, normal development in children, and many other functions

Even a mild zinc deficiency can impair the following:

  • Behavior, learning, and mood
  • Reduces blood markers for inflammation, a known trigger for premature aging and chronic disease
  • Diminished taste and smell, plus a poor appetite

But, before you believe you need a supplement of zinc, beware. Just as too little zinc can impair health, too much zinc in large quantities can be toxic and can lead to:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and exhaustion
  • Altering the body’s copper status and iron function
  • Weakened immunity
  • Lower blood levels of “good” HDL cholesterol

The amount of zinc you need daily can easily be obtained through a normal, balanced diet. For example, the recommended dietary allowances for zinc are 11 mg a day for men ages 19 and older and 8 mg a day for women 19 and older. A three-ounce beef patty provides 5.3 mg of zinc while one cup of baked beans provides 5.8 mg.

The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) of zinc for all adults 19 and older is 40 mg a day. A long-term intake above UL increases the risk of adverse health effects unless supplemental zinc is prescribed and monitored by a physician for a specific medical condition.

Zinc supplements: What to know

A supplement of any vitamin or mineral, including zinc, is just that – a supplement and not meant to replace natural food sources. Zinc supplements come in a range of types, including zinc gluconate, picolinate, acetate, and citrate, and other forms such as lozenges, capsules, and drops.

Taking a zinc supplement routinely is usually not advised unless with a physician’s recommendations or approval.  That’s because zinc can interact with medications, medical conditions, other supplements, and food.

Some examples of adverse reactions to taking a zinc supplement include inhaling zinc through the nose. This is not recommended as it leads to loss of smell permanently.  It can also reduce how much antibiotic the body absorbs from the gut and may reduce blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes that could lead to hypoglycemia. Also taking zinc sulfate with black coffee has been shown to reduce the mineral’s absorption in half.

What are the best food sources of zinc?

The very best way to obtain zinc is from food sources that will unlikely cause toxicity as a zinc supplement might. Our body prefers getting nutrients from foods that naturally contain these fundamental sources of protecting our health.

In the U.S., the best animal-based food sources of zinc include meat, shellfish, poultry, and milk products. Among plant sources, some legumes and whole grains are rich in zinc but this mineral is best absorbed from animal-based food sources.

Anyone with concerns about not getting enough zinc or what food sources they should be eating should talk to their doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance as to whether a zinc supplement might be right for you. It’s important to strike the right balance with zinc for optimal wellness.

Food or supplement: Which is best for getting your zinc?
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Dr. David Samadi

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Dr. David Samadi