Diabetes Diet: Are You Getting Enough Zinc?

A common nutrient deficiency in the U.S. today is zinc. About 12 percent of us, and up to 40 percent of the elderly, are not getting enough of this essential nutrient.

We might not think a lack of zinc would affect our diabetes care, but this end-of-the-alphabet mineral does far more in the body than boost our immune system during cold and flu season.

A Bit About Zinc

Besides helping us throw off the sniffles, zinc is important for insulin production in beta cells, blood clotting, cell division, thyroid function, breaking down carbohydrates, and wound healing. Zinc is also vital to our sense of taste, smell, and sight, and is an antioxidant—protecting us from the free radicals (molecules) that damage our cells.

We may not get enough zinc in our diet partly owed to conventional farming methods that have diminished the nutrient value of our soil. It’s also true that many of us do not consume enough zinc-rich foods daily.

We can raise our zinc intake by including dairy products, red meat, seafood, and nuts in our diet. Plant sources of zinc are legumes, asparagus, spinach, green peas, and whole grains, but the mineral is better absorbed by our body from animal-source proteins. Vegetarians are at increased risk for zinc deficiency, as are pregnant or lactating women, and those with gastrointestinal disorders.

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include hair loss, diarrhea, delayed wound healing, stunted growth (in children), diminished appetite, and weight loss.

Zinc and Diabetes

Though zinc plays a role in the formation of insulin in pancreatic beta cells, research into the prevention of type 2 diabetes using zinc supplementation has been unsuccessful. Yet, other research suggests getting plenty of zinc is important for the heart health of people with diabetes.

A Finnish study completed ten years ago followed 1,050 adults with type 2 diabetes over seven years. During those seven years, 156 of the participants died from heart disease. Another 254 suffered fatal or nonfatal heart attacks.

The Finnish researchers discovered those who passed away from heart disease had lower levels of zinc than the survivors. The participants who had heart attacks had lower zinc levels as well. It may be, investigators theorized, the antioxidant properties of zinc are a heart-protective factor for people with diabetes, and they concluded zinc supplementation may be beneficial.

However, taking too much of a good thing - even an essential mineral - can be harmful. An excess of zinc, for instance, can upset the balance of iron and copper in our body, and weaken the immune system.

Getting Zinc Right

The recommended daily zinc requirement for adult men is 11 milligrams (mg), and 8 mg for adult women. Most of us will get that by eating a varied diet, and if necessary, by adding a daily multivitamin.

If our doctor or dietitian recommends zinc supplementation, it’s best to choose one made with strict quality assurance methods, and one that contains several types of zinc, such a gluconate, chelate, and citrate.

Also, be aware that zinc supplementation may interfere with certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors, hormone replacements, corticosteroids, and some antibiotics. Always check whether a natural supplement is compatible with your prescribed drugs.

Sources: Amy Campbell, RD / Diabetes Self Management; Mercola
Photo credit: stu_spivack

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