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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise
Words from Other Birds

From time to time Vegetarians in Paradise presents informative articles by guest contributors on subjects of interest to vegetarians and vegans. This month we feature Judy East, MPH, RD, CDE, who is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with a background in wellness, cardiac rehabilitation and diabetes education. She is currently the Staff Dietitian for Gelson's Markets in Southern California where she provides information to customers and associates about nutrition and food safety through a monthly newsletter and store appearances. Judy can be reached at 1-800-GELSONS or at jeast@gelsons.com

Zinc Makes It To The Big Time

by Judy East

Judy East Iron and calcium are two minerals that are regularly addressed as potential concerns for vegetarians. Can vegetarians get enough of them in their intake? Is absorption better or worse from plant sources? In the past couple years, another mineral has jumped into the ring. Until now, very little has been studied about how our intake of zinc relates to the myriad of body mechanisms it plays a role in. It seems the tables have turned however because currently there are studies going on to discover zinc's roll in coronary heart disease, fertility, pregnancy outcomes, immune deficiency states, Alzheimer's disease and more.

As minerals go, zinc is of particular interest to vegetarians since it is a nutrient that they are at risk of lacking. Here is some information about zinc and ideas of how vegetarians can insure an adequate intake.

Functions: Zinc is quite busy in our bodies. It promotes cell reproduction and tissue growth and repair, which makes it very important for fetuses and small children. It is essential in maintaining our immune systems and it serves as a part of more than 70 enzymes.

Intakes in the Research: Studies show zinc intake to be equal to or lower in vegetarians compared with non-vegetarians. And yet, it's been found that serum zinc levels are in the normal range in vegetarians. It is believed that there may be compensatory mechanisms that help vegetarians adapt to diets that are lower in zinc. However, it is not understood whether this mechanism can meet the needs of people who need more zinc than that of a typical healthy adult, such as persons suffering from an acute or chronic illness, women who are pregnant or lactating or high level athletes. Because of the low bioavailability of zinc from plant foods and until zinc is better understood, vegetarians should strive to meet or even exceed the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for this unique mineral.

RDA for Zinc
Children10 mg
Males 11 years + 15 mg
Females 11-50 years old 15 mg
Females 11 years + 12 mg
Pregnant 15 mg
Lactating (1st 6 mo/2nd 6 mo) 19 mg/16 mg

Deficiency: A severe enough deficiency during childhood can cause retarded growth. During pregnancy, a zinc deficiency can contribute to birth defects and may contribute to complications. Other symptoms of zinc deficiency include appetite loss, skin and hair changes, and reduced resistance to infections. Vegetarians, in particular vegans, are among the groups of Americans who are at risk for sub optimal zinc intake. It is difficult for many people, whether or not they are vegetarian, to eat foods containing the recommended level of zinc.

Sources: Foods of animal origin, including meat, seafood, and liver contain more zinc than their plant-based counterparts and the zinc is more bioavailable. Eggs and milk supply zinc in smaller amounts. However, there are many vegetarian sources of zinc including nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and soy products.

Vegetarian Sources of Zinc

Zinc Milligrams per serving

Breads, grains, and cereals
Bran flakes, 1 c 5.0
Wheat germ, 2 Tbsp 2.3

Legumes (1/2 c cooked)
Adzuki beans2.0
Chickpeas 1.3
Lima beans 1.0
Lentils 1.2

Soy foods (1/2 c cooked)
Tempeh 1.5
Tofu 1.0
Textured vegetable protein 1.4

Nuts and Seeds (1 oz)
Cashews 1.6
Hazelnuts .70
Macadamias .49
Peanuts .93
Pecans 1.55
Pistachios .38
Sesame seeds 2.9
Sunflower seeds 1.44
Walnuts .97

Vegetables (1/2 c cooked)
Peas 1.0
Sea vegetables 1.1-2.0

Dairy foods
Cow's milk, 1 c1.0
Cheddar cheese, 1 oz 0.9
Yogurt, 1 c 1.8

Supplements: If you plan to supplement zinc, it is recommended to stay within the recommended dietary requirements. Toxicity is rare because too much zinc usually causes stomach upset. However, too much zinc can actually impair immunity and can interfere with copper absorption. Impaired immunity has been seen with as little as 50 mg of zinc supplementation. If you take a multivitamin it probably already contains the RDA for zinc.

End Note: The fact that you are visiting this website and reading this article probably means that you are already conscientious about what you eat, so I am not about to lecture you on balancing meals or eating healthy. The one point I would like to reiterate is that food is most nutritious in its natural state. Getting the necessary vitamins and minerals from food versus supplements means making up our meals from calories of whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables while minimizing processed foods that have been drained of much of their micronutrient benefits.

Click here for past Words from Other Birds Articles

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