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


For almost three years since Covid-19 and all of the variants from it have arrived, we’ve heard a lot about the supplementation of specific 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 considered a trace mineral, meaning it is found in small amounts (approximately 1.5 grams in women and 2.5 grams in men), primarily stored in skeletal muscle and bone. Trace mineral also means it’s a nutrient that is required in adults in amounts less than 100 milligrams per day. 

While zinc is found in only small amounts in the human body, it 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 cell’s genetic material
  • Makes heme in hemoglobin
  • Assists the pancreas with its digestive and insulin functions
  • Helps metabolize carbohydrates, protein, and fat
  • Produces 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

Most people can easily obtain the amount of zinc they need daily by following a balanced diet. For example, the recommended dietary allowances for zinc are 11 mg daily for men ages 19 and older and 8 mg a day for women 19 and older. Therefore, 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 daily. 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 include zinc gluconate, picolinate, acetate, and citrate, as well as lozenges, capsules, and drops.

A routine zinc supplement 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 a permanent loss of smell.  It can also reduce how much antibiotic the body absorbs from the gut and may result in hypoglycemia in people with type 2 diabetes. Also, taking zinc sulfate with black coffee can reduce the mineral’s absorption in half. 

What are the best food sources of zinc?

The best way to obtain zinc is from food sources that will unlikely cause a 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 concerned 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 them. It’s important to strike the right balance with zinc for optimal wellness.


Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy.  Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911. 

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