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When you picture zinc, you might think of zinc lozenges—you know, those syrupy-tasting tablets that soothe your sore throat when the temperature drops. But in addition to keeping your immune system in tip top shape, zinc is an essential mineral your cells need to keep your whole body running smoothly, especially when it comes to your metabolism, growth, and senses.
Good news: You’re probably loading up on plenty of zinc through the foods you eat, and true zinc deficiency is uncommon in North America. Beef and poultry provide the majority of zinc in the American diet, and other good sources include beans, nuts, certain types of seafood, and fortified dairy products. People who struggle with eating disorders, alcoholism, and digestive diseases are most at risk for a true zinc deficiency, explains Jessica Crandall, RDN, CDE, founder of the Denver Wellness and Nutrition Center-Sodexo and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Symptoms can be severe, and may include diarrhea, hair loss, loss of appetite, and eye and skin lesions.
Zinc inadequacy, on the other hand, is more common. It shows up most often in adults over the age of 60, but you may also fall short on zinc if you stick to a mostly plant-based diet, says Ananda Prasad, MD, PhD, distinguished professor at the department of oncology at Wayne State University. Compared to animal proteins, plant-based foods can contain less zinc. Plus, whole grains and some legumes contain compounds that make it harder for your body to fully absorb zinc, says Dr. Prasad. That’s a problem, since your body doesn’t store zinc like it does with other vitamins and minerals.
Here, eight signs you’re not getting enough zinc—and what to do if you think you’re not eating enough.