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Are you getting enough zinc?

Jane Murphy / 17 October 2017

Zinc boosts immunity, strengthens the heart and even slows the spread of cancer. Learn more about its benefits and how to ensure you're getting all you need.

Good sources of zinc include red meat, shellfish, dairy foods, bread and cereal.
Good sources of zinc include red meat, shellfish, dairy foods, bread and cereal.

Zinc can halt the growth of cancer cells, according to a new study from the University of Texas. Researchers found that taking zinc supplements can significantly inhibit the spread of oesophageal cancer – the sixth leading cause of human cancer deaths worldwide – while other healthy cells continue to grow normally in the oesophagus.

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Previous studies have demonstrated that zinc may prevent some cancers from developing in the first place. And that's just one of the many health benefits of this essential mineral.

Learn more about how zinc affects your health

Why is zinc so important?

Zinc helps with the formation of new cells and enzymes throughout the body. It's vital for maintaining a healthy immune system, processing food and healing wounds.

10 foods that help support the immune system

What are the signs of zinc deficiency?

The highest concentrations of zinc are found in the muscles and bones – but it should also be in good supply in our hair, eyes, nails, teeth and skin. For that reason, brittle nails, dry skin, hair loss and mouth ulcers are all possible signs that you're not getting enough zinc.

Thinning hair? How to help prevent hair loss

How zinc affects heart health

Zinc supply can also affect heart health, according to a recent study from the Technical University of Munich. Researchers found that zinc deficiency lessens the heart's ability to cope with oxidative stress. Over time, the heart appears to compensate by taking zinc away from other vital organs, such as the liver, kidneys and pancreas.

10 heart-healthy foods

How zinc affects the memory

Finally, zinc plays a crucial role in learning and memory, say researchers at the University of Toronto. It regulates how brain cells communicate with one another, so affects the formation of memories and our ability to learn.

10 memory-boosting foods

What are the best sources of zinc?

Good sources of zinc include red meat, shellfish, dairy foods, bread and cereal.

It's also found in slightly smaller quantities in oily fish, chicken, quinoa, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, mushrooms, garlic and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale.

A tip? Slow-cooked red meat has an even higher zinc content than meat cooked in other ways.

Try our recipe for slow cooker beef bourguignon

How much zinc should I be getting?

The current UK recommended daily allowance for adults aged 19 to 64 is 9.5mg for men and 7mg for women – so you shouldn't have to eat a lot of zinc-rich foods to get all you need.

A 100g serving of lamb breast or lean beef fillet contains around 5mg, while 100g chicken breast, butter beans or sardines each contain around 1mg.

Low fat lamb stew on the quick

Creamy sardines on toast

Who's at risk of zinc deficiency?

The ability to absorb zinc appears to decline with age, so it's worth reassessing your intake as you get older. Because red meat is one of the best sources, vegetarians, vegans – or anyone who's simply trying to cut down on meat – may find it slightly trickier, but by no means impossible, to get enough zinc.

It's also worth noting that regularly drinking too much alcohol can affect zinc absorption.

Is the vegan diet healthy?

Should I take a zinc supplement?

Probably not. You should be able to get all the zinc you need from a healthy, balanced diet. If you think you may be suffering from a deficiency, it's probably best to look at ways to consume more zinc-rich foods first. But do consult your GP to rule out any other causes for your symptoms – and discuss whether supplements may be a sensible option for you.

Is it possible to have too much zinc?

Yes. Taking high doses of zinc reduces the amount of copper the body is able to absorb, which can lead to anaemia and weakened bones. Too much zinc may also cause diarrhoea and digestive issues.

The best foods for healthy bones

Zinc and colds

Come down with the sniffles? Suck on a zinc lozenge: it can shorten the duration of your cold symptoms by an average 33 per cent, according to a research review, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open.

How to cure a cold

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.