Zinc is a mineral (also called a trace element) that you need to stay healthy
What does zinc do? As an essential nutrient, zinc plays a vital role in many bodily processes, including immune system and nerve functions†
Your body can't manufacture zinc on its own, so you must obtain this key nutrient through food or supplements
Good food sources include shellfish, red meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products (cheese and yogurt), fortified foods
To function properly and grow and develop normally, your body relies on a steady influx of key nutrients—including zinc. But what is zinc—a vitamin or mineral? What does zinc do for the body? And what foods contain zinc?
Read on for a guide to zinc’s many health benefits, uses, and dietary sources.
What Is Zinc?
As an essential nutrient, zinc is a mineral (a.k.a. trace element), and it’s needed for many bodily functions to stay healthy.† Zinc is the second most common trace mineral in the body (iron being the first), and it’s found in every cell in your body. However, your body can't produce zinc on its own, which means you must obtain this key nutrient through food or supplements.
Note: Zinc is a trace mineral, which are minerals your body needs in relatively small quantities (such as iron, zinc, chromium, iodine and selenium), but there are also "major minerals," which are minerals your body needs in relatively large amounts (such as calcium, magnesium and potassium).
What Is Zinc Used For?
Known for its antioxidant properties, zinc helps protect the body’s cells from damaging effects of free radicals, which may contribute to aging and the development of health problems. What does zinc do? Used since ancient times, zinc provides a variety of health benefits:† [1,2 3,4]
Helps the immune system
Makes proteins and DNA proteins
Helps the body’s senses of taste and smell function properly
Supports healthy growth and development, especially during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood
Maintains healthy vision
Supports reproductive function
Plays a role in cell division and cell growth
Helps break down carbohydrates
What Foods Have Zinc?
Zinc is found in a wide variety of both animal and plant foods. That’s why most people should be able to get all the zinc they need directly from eating a healthy diet. However, while fruits and vegetables contain zinc, they’re not good sources for this nutrient. Why? Because the zinc isn’t as available for the body’s use compared to zinc from animal sources. So, if you follow a low-protein or vegetarian diet, know that these eating plans tend to be low in zinc.
So, what foods have zinc? Good dietary sources of zinc include: [2,4,5]
Shellfish (particularly oysters, but also crab and lobsters)
Red meat (such as beef, pork, and lamb)
Poultry (dark meat contains more zinc than light meat)
Legumes (a variety of beans, peas, lentils, edamame)
As always, the best way to get the nutrients you need—including zinc—is to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of healthy foods. However, if you don’t get enough of this mineral in your diet (15% of Americans are not meeting their zinc needs through diet alone), consider taking zinc supplements or a multivitamin. These dietary supplements may contain variations of this mineral, such as zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, or zinc acetate.
Fun Fact: Besides zinc’s presence in supplements, it’s also present in some denture adhesive creams.
Is Zinc Safe Or Have Side Effects?
In general, zinc is considered safe when taken in recommended dosages. People with low levels of zinc may benefit from taking oral zinc supplements. However, experts suggest avoiding the use of intranasal zinc, which has been associated with losing sense of smell.
Some people who take zinc supplements may experience mild side effects, such as indigestion, diarrhea, headache, nausea, and vomiting.
What’s considered a high dosage? The National Institutes of Health considers a daily dose of 40 mg of zinc as the upper limit for adults and 4 mg of zinc for infants under age 6 months.
The Bottom Line
What does zinc do for the body? As an essential mineral, zinc plays a vital role in many bodily processes, including the immune system and nerve functions.† Because your body can't produce zinc on its own, you must obtain this key nutrient through food or supplements. Good food sources include shellfish, red meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products (like yogurt and cheese), fortified foods.
As always, the best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need is to eat a balanced, healthy diet that includes a variety of foods. However, if you don’t get enough of this mineral in your diet, consider taking supplemental zinc tablets.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or a recommendation for any specific product. Consult your healthcare provider for more information.
† These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Lim, K. H., Riddell, L. J., Nowson, C. A., Booth, A. O., & Szymlek-Gay, E. A. (2013). Iron and zinc nutrition in the economically-developed world: a review. Nutrients, 5(8), 3184–3211. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5083184
Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
Senior Manager, Medical and Scientific Communications
Melissa is a Registered Dietitian and provides leadership to Pharmavite’s Medical and Scientific Education team. She has over 20 years of experience educating consumers, healthcare professionals, retailers and employees about nutrition, dietary supplements, and overall wellness. Prior to joining the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Melissa launched and managed Pharmavite’s Consumer Affairs department and worked as a clinical dietitian throughout Southern California. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, and completed her dietetic internship at Veteran’s Hospital in East Orange New Jersey.