The facts are clear: Your body needs zinc. This essential trace element is vital for immune activity, proper growth, wound healing, digestion, male fertility and many other key biological functions. Severe zinc deficiency—which can cause malnourishment, slow growth, diarrhea, eye and skin problems, and much more—is rare in the United States, but even a very small deficiency may impair digestive function, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition.

How Much Do You Need?

Adult males and older teens should aim for 11 mg per day; females, 8–9 mg daily. Regular consumption is important, because your body has no mechanism for storing zinc.

Where to Get It

Experts recommend getting your zinc from food rather than supplements, especially over the long haul. That’s because zinc works best when combined with other nutrients in foods; plus, excessive zinc consumption (regular intake over 40 mg per day) can cause its own set of problems, including low copper levels, poor immunity, skewed iron function and possibly a higher risk of prostate cancer. Here’s a rundown of the top zinc-containing foods:

Food mg in one serving % of recommended daily intake
Oysters, cooked, breaded and fried, 3 ounces (about 5 average sized oysters) 74 493%
Beef chuck roast, braised, 3 ounces 7 47%
Beef patty, broiled, 3 ounces 5.3 35%
Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces 3.4 23%
Pork chop, loin, cooked, 3 ounces 2.9 19%
Baked beans, canned, plain or vegetarian, ½ cup 2.9 19%
Yogurt, fruit, low fat, 8 ounces 1.7 18%
Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce 1.6 11%

*Source: National Institutes of Health

Attention: Vegetarians!

You are at greater risk for low zinc levels for two reasons: 1) Zinc is most abundant in meats (especially red ones) and seafoods; dairy products also have relatively high amounts of zinc, although calcium can hinder absorption. 2) Phytates—compounds found in whole grains, nuts, legumes and seeds (all of which contain zinc)—hamper zinc absorption. The effect is minimal if you regularly eat meat, but it can put vegans and vegetarians at risk. Some experts recommend that vegetarians offset this effect by taking in 150 percent of the RDA of zinc.