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Zinc: effect and daily requirement

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 375 views

Growth, wound healing, immune defense – zinc is involved in many biological processes. However, the trace element is only stored in small amounts in the body, which is why regular intake through food is important. In Germany there are no problems with this: if you eat a balanced diet, you absorb enough zinc. Read more about the diverse effects of zinc in the body and the recommendations for daily zinc intake here!

What is zinc?

Zinc is a vital trace element. It is found in skin , hair, bones, eyes, liver and in the male reproductive organs. The body cannot produce the trace element itself and can only store it for a short time and in very small amounts (about 2 mg). Zinc must therefore be supplied externally on a regular basis. This is usually done through food – with a light whole diet according to the recommendations of the German Society for Nutrition (DGE), an adequate supply of zinc is not a problem.

Good zinc supply in Germany

Studies show that the population in Germany is well supplied with zinc. One of the reasons for this is that the soil in this country contains a relatively large amount of zinc, which is found in the cultivated grain, legumes and vegetables. However, the most important supplier of zinc is meat (above all beef, pork, poultry), which many people in Germany regularly eat.

Attention vegetarians and vegans

Plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, and grains contain somewhat lower levels of zinc than meat. In addition, the body can only absorb zinc from plant products to a limited extent. The reason for this is the phytate it also contains – an essential substance for plants, which is required for photosynthesis, among other things.

However, in the human gut , phytate binds to various micronutrients, including zinc. The trace element can then no longer pass through the intestinal wall into the blood . With a purely plant-based diet, up to 45 percent less zinc can be absorbed than with a mixed diet of plant and animal foods. Accordingly, more zinc-rich foods must be consumed to meet the need.

What are the roles of zinc in the body?

Zinc is an important component of numerous enzymes and is therefore involved in many biological processes in the body, for example:

  • Cell growth: Zinc is important for cell division.
  • Immune system: Zinc supports the immune system. It is also said to have a healing effect on colds, but this has not been scientifically proven.
  • antioxidant processes: Zinc helps to bind free radicals – reactive oxygen compounds that can damage cells and genetic material (DNA). They arise in the course of normal metabolic processes, but also, for example, through UV radiation and nicotine.
  • Blood sugar regulation: Zinc lowers blood sugar levels.
  • Formation of the red blood pigment hemoglobin
  • sperm formation
  • wound healing
  • Transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
  • hormone formation

In order for all of these vital processes to run smoothly, the body needs sufficient zinc.

What is the daily requirement of zinc?

How much zinc a person needs every day depends on various factors. For example, the German Society for Nutrition (DGE) takes age, gender and (in adults) phytate intake from food into account in its recommendations for daily zinc intake.

children and young people

According to the DGE, the following recommendations apply to the daily intake of zinc for children and adolescents:

age male Female
0 to 3 months 1.5 mg/day
4 to 12 months 2.5 mg/day
1 to 3 years 3 mg/day
4 to 6 years 4 mg/day
7 to 9 years 6 mg/day
10 to 12 years 9 mg/day 8 mg/day
13 to 14 years 12 mg/day 10mg/day
15 to 18 years 14 mg/day 11 mg/day

Adult

In adults, age no longer plays a role with regard to the recommended zinc intake, but the proportion of phytate in the usual diet does. The DGE differentiates between low, medium and high phytate intake:

  • Low phytate intake (330 mg phytate per day): It is present when someone eats only a few whole grain products and legumes and uses mainly animal protein sources (like meat). The zinc contained in the food can then be absorbed easily.
  • Medium phytate intake (660 mg phytate per day): It is found on the one hand in a wholesome diet – consisting of animal protein sources (incl. meat and fish) as well as whole grain products and legumes – as well as in vegetarian or vegan diets, if primarily highly ground, sprouted or fermented grain products are consumed.
  • High phytate intake (990 mg phytate per day): This is the case when someone eats a lot of whole grain products (mainly non-germinated or unfermented products) and legumes and covers their protein requirements exclusively or mainly through plant products (such as soy). The large amount of phytate impedes the absorption of zinc in the intestine.

Against this background, the following recommendations for daily zinc intake apply to men and non-pregnant and non-breastfeeding women :

men Women
low phytate intake 11 mg/day 7 mg/day
medium phytate intake 14 mg/day 8 mg/day
high phytate intake 16 mg/day 10mg/day

The need for zinc increases during pregnancy and breastfeeding , after all, the trace element is important for cell growth and cell division, among other things. The following recommendations therefore apply here (for pregnant women depending on the third of pregnancy = trimester):

1st trimester 2nd and 3rd trimesters lactation
low phytate intake 7 mg/day 9 mg/day 11 mg/day
medium phytate intake 9 mg/day 11 mg/day 13 mg/day
high phytate intake 11 mg/day 13 mg/day 14 mg/day

Foods high in zinc

When it comes to zinc supply, meat lovers can be happy: beef, pork and poultry contain a particularly large amount of the trace element. Other animal foods, such as cheese and eggs, are also good sources of zinc. But vegetarians and vegans can also ensure their zinc supply with simple means.

You can read which foods are good for zinc supply in the article Zinc – Foods .

How does a zinc deficiency manifest itself?

As a rule, the body receives enough zinc from food to cover its daily needs. This is why zinc deficiency is rare, at least in industrialized countries – for example, when the absorption of the trace element is impaired due to a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. In such cases, the zinc deficiency can show up in the skin (inflammatory changes, impaired wound healing) or in the area of ​​the immune system (increased susceptibility to infections ). Then taking zinc as a dietary supplement can make sense.

You can read more about the signs and risk factors for zinc deficiency as well as treatment options in the article Zinc deficiency .

How does a zinc excess manifest itself?

Too much zinc is more likely than a zinc deficiency, at least in this country. Because the recommended daily ration is usually easily supplied through food. But many people also take zinc in the form of dietary supplements – to compensate for an alleged deficiency, in the belief that they are “doing something good” or in the hope of keeping colds & Co. at bay.

In such cases, an overdose can quickly occur – with not inconsiderable consequences. Because the heavy metal zinc can cause symptoms of poisoning in high doses, such as:

In addition, high doses of zinc can impair the absorption of copper . This can result in a copper deficiency in the body – with anemia and neurological disorders as possible consequences.

Against this background, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) recommends a maximum zinc value of 6.5 mg for food supplements . In addition, all products with more than 3.5 mg of zinc should bear a notice that asks consumers to eat less zinc-containing foods while taking them. This is to prevent an oversupply of zinc .

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