There are so many elements of nutrition to worry about that it’s easy to forget about zinc. Zinc has stayed under the radar due to the fact that there is much we don’t know about absorption or how to test for it in people.
Nonetheless, zinc is an incredibly important mineral for peak health and it plays a primary role in protecting you from the everyday stress of living. Even a small deficiency can be a disaster, partly because low zinc masquerades as so many other problems.
For example, if you have gastrointestinal issues, it’s common to suspect food intolerances as the source of stomach issues, but once you eliminate all the possible offending foods and don’t experience an improvement, it’s time to consider a zinc deficiency. Zinc plays a primary role in the synthesis of enzymes used in digestion and absorption of nutrients, making it a key component of a healthy gut.
Here are ten real-life signs you could be zinc deficient. At the end there’s a list of foods you can use to raise your zinc level.
#1: You eat a high-carb diet.
Foods high in protein and fat are the richest sources of absorbable zinc, whereas grains, legumes, and nuts contain compounds called phytates that significantly decrease intestinal absorption of zinc. In addition, zinc competes for absorption with copper, iron, calcium and magnesium. One research group estimated that only between 25 and 30 percent of the zinc we get from diet is absorbed and usable by the body.
Vegetarians are at greatest risk of low zinc, but athletes eating high-carb diets are also a problem. One study estimated that 90 percent of athletes may have suboptimal zinc due to a high-carb and low-fat diet. Low zinc can affect other nutrients as well: Zinc is necessary for intestinal absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K.
#2: You have a slow recovery from training.
One of zinc’s most important actions is to act as an antioxidant and neutralize free radicals that are mediators for muscle inflammation and damage. Without sufficient zinc, you’ll likely find yourself getting extra sore after hard workouts and having a delayed recovery.
Low zinc also leads to higher elevations of blood lactate during intense exercise, causing greater fatigue and negatively affecting power output. Another factor delaying recovery is that without robust zinc stores, your body won’t produce key performance hormones like testosterone.
#3: You don’t “like” protein.
Zinc is necessary for properly functioning taste and smell. It is required for the synthesis of a protein involved in the growth and development of taste buds. People who have low zinc typically don’t enjoy eating because their sense of taste is off and protein foods are particularly disagreeable.
#4: You crave carbs.
The one food that tends to be palatable when you have a zinc deficiency is starch, partly due to the altered sense of taste that zinc causes, but also because zinc plays a key role in metabolic health. When you have low zinc, your body won’t be able to efficiently burn fat, which means it needs a constant influx of carbs to raise blood sugar to keep you going.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, a high-starch diet that lacks protein and fat is the best way to incur a zinc deficiency due to the phytates in many carbohydrates and reduced nutrient absorption of fat-soluble nutrients when fat intake is low.
#5: You have blood sugar issues.
Another effect of the dangerous interplay between low zinc and a high-carb intake is that there are three ways zinc affects your body’s ability to use insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar).
First, zinc binds to insulin so that it is adequately stored in the pancreas and released when glucose (sugar) enters the blood stream. Second, zinc is used to make the enzymes necessary for insulin to bind to cells so that glucose can enter the cell and be used as fuel. Third, zinc has anti-inflammatory effects, getting rid of substances that damage cellular health, helping to preserve insulin sensitivity.
#6: You’re blue.
Low zinc could be the reason you feel less than psyched about life. Zinc regulates dopamine, an energizing neurotransmitter that boosts mood and targets pleasure centers in the brain. In addition, zinc has a protective role in the brain, helping the body to eliminate heavy metals so they don’t build up and cause cell damage.
Several studies have shown that people with the lowest dietary intake of zinc had the highest rates of depression, whereas getting adequate zinc reduced depressive rates by 30 to 50 percent. There’s also evidence of a gender-based relationship between low zinc and more depression. Women who took antidepressants but had low zinc status reported a five times greater risk of ongoing depression.
#7: You have poor body composition (trouble gaining muscle or losing body fat).
Zinc plays a primary role in hormone production, enabling healthy levels of testosterone and growth hormone, which promote the development of muscle mass. In addition, zinc increases the insulin sensitivity of muscle cells, enhancing protein synthesis and tissue repair after intense training.
Zinc also plays a role in body fat levels. For example, one recent study found that when obese subjects supplemented with 30 mg/day of zinc gluconate for a month, they lost 1.6 kg and reduced waist circumference by 2.2 cm. Researchers think there are three mechanisms that resulted in body fat reductions: 1) improved leptin sensitivity and better appetite regulation, 2) reduced gene mutation, which can increase obesity, and 3) improved insulin sensitivity.
#8: Poor libido or reproductive problems.
Besides immunity, zinc is probably best known for raising testosterone and being something of an aphrodisiac mineral. Studies have found strong associations between low zinc, low testosterone, and symptoms of male menopause. On the other hand, athletes who supplemented with zinc had a larger elevation in free testosterone after an exhaustive workout.
Zinc is also necessary for women to use estrogen and testosterone efficiently, and zinc deficiency is a common factor for female athletes who suffer from problems with reproductive health.
#9: Trouble concentrating.
Low zinc leads to reduced dopamine, which is necessary for focus, drive, and motivation. It’s a key neurotransmitter for concentration and getting stuff done, which is why zinc supplementation is a common solution for mild-to-moderate ADHD. For example, children who took 10 mg/day of zinc sulfate for 6 weeks improved concentration and reduced symptoms of ADHD in a school setting.
#10: Your diet is crappy.
Zinc has super antioxidant effects, being part of an enzyme involved in proper production of superoxide dismutase that protects the body against free radicals that cause inflammation. This is helpful in fighting all forms of inflammation, but it’s particularly relevant when your diet is poor due to refined grains and processed foods that deplete zinc levels and can inhibit absorption of zinc.
Which brings us to what you’ve been waiting for…
What you need to do to solve zinc deficiency through diet:
First, avoid consuming phytate-rich foods during meals when you eat foods high in zinc. Phytates are compounds in plant foods such as cereal grains, legumes, and nuts that inhibit the absorption of zinc. You don’t have to completely eliminate these foods—just don’t eat them with zinc-rich foods or when supplementing with zinc.
Second, eat plenty of protein that is high zinc. These foods enhance absorption because they don’t contain phytates, but do provide fat, which improves assimilation. The top zinc foods are oysters, beef, lamb, chocolate, pork, and chicken.
Third, soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains and seeds can increase the bioavailability of zinc from plant sources.
Fourth, the most effective way to test for zinc status is to get a red blood cell zinc test because body stores of zinc can be rapidly altered and zinc in the plasma is not a reliable measure of overall status. Athletes train most efficiently with red blood cell zinc levels of above 1,400 mcg/dl.
A zinc taste test is another option to identify basic zinc deficiency. Be aware that the zinc taste test is not 100 percent reliable because various factors can affect taste sensation.
To do the zinc taste test, place a special zinc sulfate product on in your mouth. If it tastes just like water, you are likely zinc deficient. If you taste something slightly metallic, you probably have low zinc. If it tastes disgusting and very metallic, your levels are probably adequate.