How much do you really know about zinc? Sure, you've heard of it, but you may not know it plays an important role it plays in your health. And you may not realize that this essential trace mineral cannot be produced by your body, so you need to eat foods high in zinc to make sure you have enough.
This often-overlooked mineral is “important for your immune system, wound healing, and protein synthesis,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, a nutritionist in Stamford, Connecticut. Zinc's immune benefits are so legit that it may reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, according to research published in 2015.
“Zinc contributes to the development of cells that are in charge of defending your body against toxins or threatening foreign substances," Gorin explains. It also helps with cell growth, which is essential for healing damaged tissue.
Thankfully, you don't need too much of the mineral. Adult women need eight milligrams of zinc per day, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), but pregnant and breastfeeding women need more. When you don't take in enough zinc, you're more susceptible to illness, Gorin says.
Though most people don’t need to worry about zinc deficiency, certain groups—including people with digestive disorders and certain chronic illnesses, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women—are at greater risk. Vegetarians and vegans are also more likely to fall short on the mineral, since it's harder to absorb the zinc found in plant-based foods than that in animal sources.
To keep your immunity strong and sickness at bay, put the following foods—all good sources of zinc—on your shopping list next time you hit the stores.
Meet the expert: Amy Gorin, RDN, is a nationally recognized expert in nutrition and has been interviewed by several highly regarded publications. She served as a judge for the 2018 UpwaRD program for up-and-coming RDNs, a 2018 and a 2017 Unilever Agent of Change, and an April 2016 Today’s Dietitian Magazine RD of the Day.
If you’re looking for a plant-based zinc source that’s super versatile and easy to add to countless meals, go with pumpkin seeds. An ounce contains not just 2.2 milligrams of zinc (28 percent of a woman’s recommended daily amount), but also a whopping 8.5 grams of plant-based protein. Plus, some evidence suggests that eating a diet rich in pumpkin seeds could lower your risk of some cancers.
Per 1-ounce serving: 158 calories, 13.9 g fat (2.5 g saturated), 2 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 0.4 g sugar, 1.7 g fiber, 8.5 g protein
What’s not to like about oatmeal? It’s inexpensive, versatile, and endlessly cozy. Not only do oats contain soluble fiber, which has been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease, but half a cup also contains 1.3 milligrams of zinc, which is 16 percent of a woman’s daily need. Consider it yet another reason to love this classic breakfast staple.
Per ½-cup (uncooked) serving: 148 calories, 2.8 g fat (0.4 g saturated), 1.2 mg sodium, 27 g carbs, 0.6 g sugar, 3.8 g fiber, 5.5 g protein
Per ounce, oysters have the highest zinc concentration of any food. Three ounces of raw oysters contain 32 milligrams of zinc, more than four times the recommended daily intake for the average gal.
Another perk: That same amount of oysters also contains over 100 percent of your daily needs for vitamin B12, which is crucial for your nervous system, metabolism, and healthy blood cells.
Per 3-ounce serving: 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 4.5 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 151 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 4 g protein
Although experts (like the American Institute for Cancer Research) recommend limiting red meat consumption to no more than a few times a week, lean beef can still be a healthy part of your diet.
Opt for 95 percent lean ground beef or lean cuts (like sirloin) with the fat trimmed, and you'll score 5.7 milligrams of zinc per four-ounce serving. (That's a little over 70 percent of the recommended daily value.)
Per 4-ounce serving: 155 calories, 5.65 g fat (2.5 g saturated), 75 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 24 g protein
Love hammering the meat out of whole boiled crabs? Or, do you prefer the ease (and delicious seasoning) of seared crab cakes?
Either way, three ounces of cooked crab meat contains up to 7 milligrams of zinc, about 88 percent of what women need in a day. While the exact amount of zinc you'll get varies from species to species, all crabs are great sources of the mineral.
Per 3-ounce serving of Alaskan King crab: 82 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 911 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 15 g protein
Looking for plant-based sources of zinc? Hemp seeds are your best bet. They're loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, and a three-tablespoon serving contains 3 milligrams of zinc, which is 38 percent of the recommended daily amount for women.
Hemp seeds are also high in the amino acid arginine, which research suggests can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Try sprinkling them on your yogurt or salad to mix things up.
Per 3-tablespoon serving: 166 calories, 14.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated), 2 mg sodium, 2.5 g carbs, 0.5 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 9.5 g protein
Beans and legumes are another great plant-based option if you want to up your zinc intake without meat. A cup of cooked or canned chickpeas is high in fiber and protein, and contains 2.5 milligrams of zinc (31 percent of women’s recommended daily intake).
Like other legumes, chickpeas offer countless other benefits, too. Get this: Eating chickpeas every day can help you feel more full and satisfied between meals, according to one study. Adding them to a meal can also help keep your blood sugar stable, which means no energy crash later.
Per 1-cup serving: 269 calories, 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 68 mg sodium, 45 g carbs, 8 g sugar, 12.5 g fiber, 14.5 g protein
Another excellent plant-based source of zinc? Black beans. Toss a cup of cooked black beans on top of that salad and you'll get 2 milligrams of zinc, or 25 percent of your daily needs. These beans are also high in iron, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium, which support overall health and are especially important for bone health.
Per 1-cup serving: 227 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 2 mg sodium, 41 g carbs, 0.5 g sugar, 15 g fiber, 15 g protein
Greek yogurt has so many stellar health benefits, and here's yet another one to add to the list: a seven-ounce container of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt packs 1.5 milligrams of zinc, which is 19 percent of what a woman needs daily. It’s also rich in digestion-boosting probiotics. (Not sure which one to buy? Here are 14 Greek yogurts that dietitians recommend.)
Per 7-ounce serving: 146 calories, 4 g fat (2.5 g saturated), 68 mg sodium, 8 g carbs, 7 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 20 g protein
Cashews are one of the most affordable—and, in my totally biased opinion, the most delicious—nuts, so there's no reason not to keep a container in your pantry. Whether you eat them roasted or raw, you'll get just over 1.5 milligrams of zinc per ounce. (That's 20 percent of a woman’s daily needs!)
Cashews are also packed with healthy unsaturated fat. Eating them regularly may help reduce blood pressure and raise healthy HDL cholesterol levels, per one study published in The Journal of Nutrition.
Per 1-ounce serving: 157 calories, 12 g fat (2 g saturated), 8.5 g carbs, 1.5 g sugar, 3 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 5 g protein