Zinc is an essential nutrient, and it’s important we get enough of it in our diets. Here, a dietician explains what happens if we don’t.
When it comes to macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates, as well as some of the more trendy micronutrients like fibre and vitamin D, we understand just how important it is to get enough in our diets. But, while minerals like zinc often get less of a mention, they are still essential to a healthy, balanced diet.
Zinc in particular plays a vital role in our bodies, responsible as it is for creating and supporting just about every cell. We also need it to properly metabolise the big stuff, like fats and carbs, and it is essential to our bodies’ healing processes and our immune systems.
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“The role zinc plays in immunity is really important,” adds Catherine Rabess, registered dietician and specialist in gastro and nutrition support. That explains why zinc is often prescribed as a way to beat the common cold: “If zinc levels are low, it’s likely that your immune health is not going to be as optimised, which could increase your risk of developing infections.”
What are the signs of low zinc levels?
Because of its role in metabolism and cell creation, some symptoms of low zinc levels include:
- Low immune system (regularly catching colds or illnesses)
- Slow wound healing
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
However, as with many vitamin deficiencies, there is often no single tell-tale symptom, meaning that we often don’t know we are at risk until our levels are very low. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, it’s best to ask your doctor for a blood test to see if you are deficient in zinc or any other vitamins or minerals.
Who is most at risk of low zinc levels?
- Pregnant people: “Zinc is really important within DNA synthesis, so pregnant women should be particularly aware of getting enough zinc in,” explains Catherine.
- Those who are take iron supplements should also be aware of their zinc levels, as too much iron can interfere with zinc absorption.
- Vegetarians and vegans: “Zinc is mainly found in animal products, so those who avoid these need to be more conscious of where they get zinc from,” Catherine adds.
- People with alcohol dependency, as alcohol can limit zinc absorption
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How can you improve zinc levels?
The NHS says that women should be getting around 7mg of a day for optimum health. “We should mainly look to get these nutrients through our diets, and zinc is found in good quantities in animal products” explains Catherine. In fact, a rump steak contains around 9mg of zinc. “However, where possible, we should be limiting our red meat intake to no more than twice a week because of the saturated fat levels.”
Other foods that are high in zinc include:
- Quorn, or mycoprotein
- Fortified breakfast cereals
You can supplement if your zinc levels are low or you struggle to get enough zinc in your diet. Even then, make sure you don’t take too much zinc, as it can be harmful for the body. The NHS advises an upper limit of 25mg a day, but always check with your doctor.
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