Zinc: A Healing Nutrient Profile

What does Zinc do?
Zinc is an important mineral mostly because it’s a true multi-tasker: It plays myriad roles in the body, touching on practically every system. But perhaps its most important role is in supporting the immune system. Beyond that, zinc also helps us metabolize macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein), and without it our bodies wouldn’t be able to make protein or DNA. Zinc has also been found to play a role in taste and smell, and in preventing macular degeneration, plus it helps wounds heal. And if that’s not enough, zinc is a component of one of the most important antioxidant enzymes—called superoxide dismutase—where it helps to fight free radicals. Phew!

How much zinc do you need?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc is 11 milligrams (mg) per day for adults (slightly less if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding). Because we absorb less of it from plant sources than from meat, vegetarians may need more zinc—up to 50 percent more, in some cases. If you have a condition that affects nutrient absorption, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, you may also need more than the RDA.

Most of us get enough zinc from what we eat. Adults should consume no more than 40 mg per day; getting too much from supplements can cause gastrointestinal problems, low levels of copper, loss of appetite and headaches, and it can impair immune function and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels, thereby increasing heart disease risk.

Research is conflicting regarding the effects of zinc supplements for relief of the common cold. If you’re dealing with a cold, taking 30 mg per day of zinc might reduce the severity and duration of your illness, especially if you take it within 24 hours of the onset of your symptoms.

Where can you get zinc?
Red meat, poultry, certain types of shellfish, legumes, nuts, whole grains, dairy and fortified cereals are all good sources of zinc. Here are some of our favorite foods that contain plenty of this powerhouse mineral:


Serving size

Amount of Zinc (mg)
Oysters 4 oz 103
Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin) ⅓ cup 20
Canned baked beans 1 cup 15
Lean roast beef 4 oz 8
Wheat germ ¼ cup 5
Dark meat turkey 4 oz 5
Dark meat chicken 4 oz 3
Refried beans 1 cup 3
100% bran cereal ½ cup 3

You can look up the zinc content of other foods by using the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

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