I have a lot of tired, well meaning vegans walk into my clinic. Vegans are often people with incredibly admirable principles regarding the value of life and the welfare of animals and the planet: I respect them, and their ability to stick to a restrictive diet which requires a lot of work (when done properly), very, very much.
Sadly, many of the vegans who come to me are baffled with symptoms they are experiencing. I can happily spot what is going on quite automatically - knowing the solution is always a good place to be when faced with a problem! We all know a lot about the risks of iron and B12 deficiency in vegetarian/vegan diets, but we speak minimally about the risks of zinc deficiency. There are simply some nutrients which animal derived foods deliver with more ease to the body, and zinc is one of them.
In addition, vegan sources of zinc often come packaged in plant foods rich in phytates. Phytates can interfere with the absorption of plant based zinc by binding with it in the digestive system; this means that a vegan should consider their daily requirements for zinc 50% higher than a meat eater: this can be a lot of work; mindful meal planning is essential - a chip butty simply won't do!
If your immune system appears to be working poorly, if your're mentally foggy, losing your appetite, have delayed wound healing and feel generally bleurgh all the time...consider you may have a deficiency. Do not take high doses of supplemental zinc since it can impair the absorption of copper - go and meet with a good dietitian or simply do some reading about zinc rich foods and make sure you get them in daily!
Zinc is also, unlike iron, a nutrient which the body does not store very well - so meeting daily requirements is essential (8mg/day for women, 11mg/day for men and at least 13mg/day for pregnant or lactating women). If beans/grains/seeds/nuts are soaked or sprouted, phytate content is reduced - so it is a good habit to employ if you are a vegan.
Good vegetarian sources of zinc are the legume, nut, seed and wholegrain families of foods. A favourite, incredibly delicious recipe I love to make is Nigerian bean stew by Madhur Jaffrey - recipe below. It is the only vegan dish I've made which my carnivore husband says fills him up enough to be considered meaty-like. It has peanut butter enriching the sauce and is full of beautiful, purple kidney beans - served with basmati rice it is dreamy!
Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew with Peanut Sauce
2 cans of red kidney beans, rinsed well and drained
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 green pepper, diced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 398 ml can of tomato sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 generous tablespoons peanut butter
1/3-2/3 teaspoon of salt to taste
Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and green pepper and saute until the onion is translucent.
Add the cumin and stir to coat the onion mixture
Add the tomato sauce, cayenne, lemon juice and 1/2 cup water
Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes
Remove about 1/2 cup of liquid from the pot and reserve. Add the peanut butter to the reserved liquid and stir to mix. Return to the pot.
Add the kidney beans a cook until heated through – about 10 minutes