One of the best natural ways to boost your immune system? Eating zinc-rich foods. Here’s why we need zinc to stay healthy, plus the top 7 sources of plant-based zinc to add to your plate this fall.
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Have a friend who swears by zinc lozenges to help fight off the common cold? They may be onto something...
When it comes to eating food to boost the immune system, zinc is a heavy hitter. Why? Zinc is an essential mineral that's known to have antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits, among other things (it's key to human growth, DNA synthesis, healthy skin, taste perception, bone formation, sperm count, and wound healing). When it comes to immune function, studies show that zinc is beneficial in reducing both duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people when taken with 24 hours of the onset of symptoms!
Zinc activates T lymphocytes (T cells) in the body, which regulate immune responses and attack infected cells. Zinc's been shown to impede the attachment of rhinoviruses (the most common cause of the common cold) to our cells, while also slowing the replication of the virus.
We know zinc can protect lungs from injury during respiratory illness by reducing inflammation and give your immune system in general a leg up, while a zinc deficiency makes you more susceptible to illness. While the jury's still out on using zinc as a treatment for COVID-19, there is evidence that including zinc in your daily regimen before getting ill can help you fight off illness. This January 2021 study looks at links between zinc levels and folks hospitalized with COVID. What they found was that those with healthy levels of zinc in their blood had better clinical recovery rates.
We don't actually need all that much zinc! The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc in the United States is:
- 8 mg a day for women
- 11 mg a day for men
And while many people think of zinc as a mineral found in animal products (like oysters and beef) there are plenty of zinc-rich plant-based foods, too!
Tofu contains a whopping 4 mg of zinc per cup. Don't like tofu? You might be preparing it wrong. No worries! We've been there. Here's the secret to making tofu taste great, every time. (Or make things really easy on yourself and just get MamaSezz Ricotta-Style Mushroom and Tomato Bake delivered to your door, ready-made.)
With 3 mg of zinc per cup, lentils are another great zinc-rich plant-based food. Lentils are also high in B6 and selenium, two other important immunity-boosting compounds. They're also easy to prepare at home, especially in soups, like this anti-inflammatory lemon lentil soup.
Chickpeas, AKA garbanazo beans, are another zinc-rich favorite here at MamaSezz. With 2.5 mg of zinc per cup, they're also loaded with plant-based protein to fuel your day. Chickpeas make an excellent meat-free sandwich filling, like this easy lemon avocado chickpea salad. They're even a delicious vegan swap for scrambled eggs.
Your morning bowl of oats contains 2 mg of zinc per cup. Whole grains in general are a good source of zinc (though they contain phytic acid which can prohibit absorption...but there are ways around that, which we'll get to in a minute!).
Whole grains like oats are also high in fiber which makes them a heart healthy choice that's good for your gut, to boot.
More than just a hot cereal, oats are found in some of our favorite plant-based recipes, from these whole food plant-based oatmeal raisin cookies to these kid-friendly oatmeal muffins. They can even be used for savory dishes, like our MamaSezz Veggie Loaf (bonus: this vegan comfort food comes to your door already prepared so you don't have to cook!).
5. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds have 2 mg of zinc per ounce. Not sure how to eat hemp seeds? We love them sprinkled on oatmeal (double the zinc!) and salads.
6. Pumpkin Seeds
Another zinc-rich seed to add to your bowl of oats, pumpkin seeds have 2 mg of zinc per ounce. (They're also sprinkled on our MamaSezz Quinoa Stack for a zinc-rich lunch that you don't have to prep.)
A healthy snack to boost your zinc intake? Look no further than a handful of cashews, which contains 2 mg of zinc per ounce. Or simply get yourself some MamaSezz Mama's Mac Sauce, a dreamy combination of cashew cream, spices, and some plant-based magic to make one mouth-watering dairy-free "cheese" sauce.
While you can certainly eat plenty of zinc-rich foods on a plant-based diet, plant based sources have less bioavailability, which can reduce absorption. This is thought to be caused in large part by the phytates, or phytic acids, found in plant-based zinc sources, like whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
The good news is, you can increase your absorption of zinc from plant-based foods with these hacks:
- Eating fermented zinc sources, like tempeh, miso, and sourdough bread.
- Sprouting your legumes and grains.
- Soaking your grains before cooking them.
- Cooking legumes and grains before eating them.
- Eating allium family foods (onions, leeks, chives, garlic, etc.) alongside your grains and legumes.
- Zinc is an essential mineral to our health, especially from an immunity standpoint. Studies show it can shorten and reduce the severity of the common cold and protect the lungs from inflammation.
- You can meet your daily zinc needs easily on a plant-based diet by choosing a variety of whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
- While there are plenty of zinc-rich foods in a plant-based diet, the bioavailability of plant-based zinc sources is lower than animal-derived sources.
- You can increase bioavailability by fermenting, sprouting, soaking, and cooking your zinc-containing foods, as well as eating the with allium family foods.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a mom, wife, and nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor. She has her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.