Zinc is an essential mineral for overall health and wellness. Involved in hundreds of enzymatic processes throughout your body, zinc is crucial in wound healing, cell signaling and division, DNA and protein synthesis, and immune function.
Additionally, zinc is crucial for having a sense of taste and for supporting fetal growth and development during pregnancy. Your body doesn’t make zinc, so it’s important to get sources of zinc in your diet regularly.
This article examines the best food sources of zinc, including ideas for zinc-rich snacks, sides, and main dishes you can incorporate into your everyday lifestyle.
How Much Zinc per Day?
The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for zinc are between 8 and 11 milligrams (mg) daily for men and women, with slightly higher needs—around 11–13 mg daily—during pregnancy and breastfeeding (lactation).
Fruits and Vegetables High in Zinc
Of all the dietary sources of zinc, fruits and vegetables don’t rank very high on the list. Plant foods are excellent sources of other nutrients, such as fiber, antioxidants, and specific vitamins and minerals, which have been linked to optimal health, so limited zinc isn’t a reason to skip them.
Still, certain fruits and veggies do contribute some zinc to your diet. Especially if you don’t consume meat or fish, a variety of plant foods can provide small amounts of zinc that add up.
The best produce choices when you’re looking for zinc are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy greens
To include fruit and vegetable zinc sources, try making potato soup, enjoying sauteed greens with garlic or a leafy green salad, having a side of grapefruit for breakfast, or tossing a kiwi into your lunch.
Protein Sources High in Zinc
Both animal- and plant-derived protein sources are also among the best sources of zinc.
You’ll get the most zinc per serving by eating oysters. These provide approximately 24 mg of zinc per three medium oysters.
Other types of meat and shellfish are also an option. For instance, lean beef provides 10 mg of zinc per 3-ounce serving. King crab can provide over 90% of your daily needs for zinc per 3.5-ounce serving. You’ll also get some zinc from shrimp and mussels.
For plant-based eaters, legumes are an excellent source of zinc and other nutrients. Legumes include:
- Soy foods, like edamame, tofu, and tempeh
A half-cup serving of boiled lentils provides around 2 mg of zinc. A half-cup serving of extra firm tofu provides 2 mg of zinc.
Legumes also contain compounds called phytates, which can interfere with zinc absorption. While there’s a lot of negative hype around these so-called antinutrients, impaired absorption is only an issue when you eat raw legumes, which most people don’t do.
To help boost the zinc bioavailability from these foods, all you have to do is soak and cook, sprout, or ferment them, which is how they’re typically prepared anyway.
If you’re not used to preparing legumes for meals, start simple. Use lentils or tempeh to replace ground beef in tacos or casseroles. Try crumbled tofu with veggies to make a savory breakfast scramble. Add beans and peas to soups and pasta dishes.
Dairy High in Zinc
You can find some zinc in dairy products such as cow’s milk and cheese. For example, in a 1-ounce slice of cheddar cheese, you’ll get 1 mg of zinc. There’s also 1 mg of zinc in a 240 millimeter (ml)—about 1 cup—serving of cow’s milk.
If you don’t consume dairy products, plant-based alternatives, such as soy milk, can also be a source of zinc. For example, 1 cup of original organic soy milk provides 10% of the daily needs for zinc.
Zinc is not always listed on the nutrition facts label of foods. To get the most zinc from plant-based dairy alternatives, choose ones made using a legume base, like soy.
Use dairy or legume-based dairy alternatives in pancake and muffin batter, to top off your cereal in the morning, in your coffee, as a base for soups and sauces, or as a standalone drink.
Other Good Sources
As with most nutrients, zinc can be found in foods. Some are better sources than others. The best way to ensure you get zinc from your diet is to eat a balanced diet with many healthy foods. This is also a great way to obtain an abundance of other nutrients.
In addition to the food sources above, here are a few more places to find zinc in your diet.
Zinc in Whole Grains
Whole grains like oats, brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread, quinoa, and barley contain some zinc. Choose whole grains over refined white grains for the most nutritional benefit, including fiber, per serving. While whole grains also contain phytates, research shows that the benefit of consuming them far outweighs any negatives.
Try whole grains as a base for protein bowls, stir-fries, or breakfast dishes. You can even toss them into cold, leafy green salads and use them in the batter for homemade veggie burgers.
Zinc in Dark Chocolate
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be happy to hear that dark chocolate with 70% to 80% cacao is also a source of zinc. A 3.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate contains around 3.3 mg of zinc.
Toss dark chocolate pieces into a homemade trail mix, stir it into some breakfast oatmeal, or enjoy it as a midday treat.
Zinc in Seeds
Nuts and seeds are simple ways to add zinc to your diet. Just three tablespoons of hemp seeds provide between 30% and 40% of the daily zinc needs for men and women, respectively.
Enjoy nuts and seeds as part of a homemade trail mix snack to grab and go when you need an afternoon pick-me-up. Mix them into your oatmeal or yogurt, or enjoy a handful with a side of fruit. You can even blend them into nut or seed butter to spread on toast or serve with apple slices.
What If Eating Food High in Zinc Isn’t Enough?
If you’re concerned about your zinc intake, speak with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian who can help you examine your diet. If needed, a healthcare provider can order to evaluate your plasma zinc concentration and diagnose a deficiency.
Because zinc is involved in processes like immune function, wound healing, and your senses, potential symptoms of zinc deficiency might include:
- Wounds that don’t heal as well or as fast as usual
- Unexplainable weight loss
- Reduced ability to focus or be alert
- Disrupted ability to smell or taste things
- Loss of appetite
- Illnesses that hang around longer than normal
If you’re not regularly consuming sources of zinc in your diet, taking a zinc supplement might be warranted.
However, zinc is not recommended as a long-term supplement as it can interfere with the absorption of copper and iron, potentially resulting in a deficiency of these nutrients. Using zinc nasal sprays may also result in temporary loss of the sense of smell.
Furthermore, large doses of zinc can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping within a few hours, so ingesting more than the RDA is not recommended.
Instead, temporarily supplement with zinc when you feel like you need extra immune support. Starting a zinc supplement within 24 hours of your first symptoms of illness may help reduce its severity and longevity.
Zinc is a mineral involved in many crucial bodily processes. Getting enough of it is essential for supporting your overall health. Some of the best sources of zinc in the diet include meat, shellfish, dairy products, cooked legumes, certain nuts and seeds, and plant-based dairy alternatives made from legumes. Certain fruits and vegetables contain some zinc but shouldn’t be relied upon as a primary source.
In some instances, a zinc supplement may be warranted, although supplemental zinc is usually reserved for temporary uses, such as when you feel a cold coming on. The best way to know whether you’re getting enough zinc is to speak with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian.