Zinc deficiency and plant based athletes

Zinc deficiency is more common in plant-based athletes.  Fact is, zinc is the powerhouse that supports performance. And knowing how being deficient in zinc can affect your progress, is essential.

Most athletes understand zinc’s role in supporting the immune system and wound healing, and its requirement for a proper sense of taste and smell but few understand its role in muscle function. It is a nutrient that needs to be consumed every day as the body doesn’t naturally produce zinc.

In our blog Robust immunity in athletes we outline the common signs of zinc deficiency, including frequent and prolonged colds, acne, dermatitis, low stomach acid, poor digestion, fatigue, and white spots or bands on nails.

In our previous blog Am I Deficient in Zinc? we outline how the high demands of sports make the elite athlete more vulnerable to illness, meaning over 65% of athletes experience regular colds and infections that sideline them from events and consistent training.

Zinc’s homeostasis is tightly regulated by different transport and buffer protein systems. Exercise has been shown to modulate zinc blood serum and urinary levels and could directly affect zinc transport around the body. The oxidative stress induced by exercise may provide the basis for the mild zinc deficiency observed in athletes and could have severe consequences on health and sports performance.

Importantly for athletes, zinc has been found to affect protein and muscle formation and regeneration due to its effects on muscle cell activation, proliferation and differentiation.

Plant based athletes in particular need to be aware of zinc rich sources, and food containing inhibitors of zinc absorption.

For vegan and vegetarian athletes, wholegrain cereals and legumes provide the highest concentrations of zinc, generally in the range of 2.5–5.0 mg/100 g raw weight. As zinc is contained within the outer layer of grains, unrefined whole grains provide higher concentrations of zinc than refined grains (up to 5.0 mg/100 g, compared with 1.0 mg/100 g).

Wholegrain breads and cereals, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, soy products and fortified breakfast cereals are important dietary sources of zinc for everyone, not just vegetarians.

Fruit and green leafy vegetables have much lower concentrations of zinc due to their high water content. The good news is there is no evidence of greater risk of being deficient if intake of plant based zinc sources are adequate.

Well-planned vegetarian diets can provide adequate amounts of zinc from plant sources. Vegetarians appear to adapt to lower zinc intakes by increased absorption and retention of zinc. The inhibitory effects of phytate on absorption of zinc can be minimised by soaking, heating, sprouting and fermenting. Absorption of zinc can be improved by using yeast-based breads and sourdough breads, sprouts, and presoaked legumes.

Studies on runners indicate a drop in serum zinc following exercise and a higher excretion of urinary zinc than in sedentary populations. Zinc is vital for skeletal muscle, a tissue whose main function is contraction, force and movement production. As your body actually secretes zinc through sweat, it is essential for athletes to monitor zinc levels often.

It is super important not to just rely on just supplements to increase levels of zinc in your body. The risks of long-term zinc supplementation can have other potentially detrimental effects such as displacing other minerals such as copper and iron needed to form hemoglobin, therefore, increasing the risk of developing anaemia.

Zinc requires a fine balance between adequacy and deficiency and therefore essential to seek advice from a qualified practitioner who can determine the best course of action to avoid issues.


About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://


Walsh (2019).  Nutrition and Athlete Immune Health: New Perspectives on an Old Paradigm. Nov 6. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01160-3.

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Woodbridge, P., Konstantaki, M., & Horgan, G. (2020). Nutritional deficiencies in vegan runners: A comparison of actual versus recommended nutritional intake and dietary recommendations. Journal of Exercise and Nutrition, 3(3).

DE, A. K. (2020). Zinc supplementation. A must for Athletes. Science and Culture.

McClung, J. P. (2019). Iron, zinc, and physical performance. Biological trace element research, 188(1), 135-139.

Low zinc symptoms

The high demands of sports make athletes more vulnerable to illness, with 65% of athletes experiencing regular colds and infections. Zinc is a key nutrient required for immunity and keeping an eye out for low zinc symptoms, may just make the difference between being sick or great performances.

It can be so frustrating to put in many months of hard training only to be sidelined during a taper or on race day by heaving lungs, debilitating fatigue, and a pounding headache. Sports performance is materialised through consistency, akin to writing a book, one page at a time. Forced breaks from training due to illness detract from progress and drains confidence. Not all athletes rest when unwell and opt to “push through” the illness only to experience prolonged symptoms and more disruption to competition. 

Building a robust immunity is all part of a holistic approach to coaching and training. So how do you minimise your risk of getting sick? 

There are many nutrients that contribute to a healthy immune system as discussed previously.

Athletes may be more susceptible to being deficient in zinc because exercise, particularly strenuous and endurance exercise, increases zinc requirements, encourages zinc loss through sweating, and changes zinc transportation and metabolism.  

In our opinion, zinc plays the most critical role in supporting athletes and immunity.

Zinc’s role in hormone control and immunity

Zinc regulates several crucial processes in both your innate and adaptive immune system. Being deficient in zinc can lead to athletes becoming more susceptible to respiratory illness, particularly in the colder months. 

Apart from zinc’s well-established role in immunity, this mineral, contributes to protein structure, regulates gene expression, metabolism and is the second most abundant trace element in the body after iron.  Zinc deficiency can impact an athlete through hormone dysregulation (testosterone, thyroid, and growth hormones to name a few) and may affect erectile function and fertility.

Zinc is essential to maintaining optimum performance due to its function in metabolism and healthy cell division – essential in repairing damaged tissues after you exercise.

Studies show being deficient in zinc can lead to a reduction in the number of fast-twitch muscle fibres and muscle mass and performance decline.  For Masters Athletes this is of particular relevance as aging is also associated with sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass, muscle strength, and physical performance.

Zinc also helps maintain blood sugar control and assists with muscle contraction during exercise, glucose metabolism, and glycogen storage.

Zinc also plays an essential role in antioxidant production by increasing antioxidant activity and inhibiting free radical production that may damage tissues, impact liver function, and prevent muscle exhaustion.

Low zinc symptoms

Apart from recurrent colds and other infections, there are many low zinc symptoms.

*Anxiety and depression

*Hormone imbalances

*Poor concentration

*Stomach pain and gas

*Slow healing

*White spots on nails

*Skin issues and acne

*Loss of appetite

*Loss or change of smell

*Changes in taste

Zinc rich foods

The most concentrated sources of zinc are contained in animal products, particularly meat, seafood and dairy.   Vegan and plant-based athletes may be more susceptible to zinc deficiency due to reduced dietary intake, lowered gastric acid (which is zinc-dependent) and higher phytate consumption.  Phytates found in plant-based zinc-rich foods such as legumes can inhibit zinc absorption. 

Soaking nuts and seeds and legumes prior to cooking is a great way to minimise this issue and allow for greater micronutrient absorption.

Iron absorption 

The gastrointestinal tract plays an important role in maintaining total body zinc homeostasis by regulating zinc absorption and excretion. In order to boost your absorption, the addition of a probiotic may be beneficial.

In certain situations, zinc supplementation may be recommended. The amount ingested, supplement form, and the timing of zinc matters. Speak to a naturopath or nutritionist with an interest in sport before self-prescribing. You’ll definitely want to avoid zinc toxicity. High zinc levels can have a detrimental impact on your performance through anaemia, copper and iron deficiency and unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects.

Zinc testing

Serum blood testing is used by some conventional practitioners to determine zinc levels in the body. Keep in mind 60% of zinc is stored in muscle and 30% in bone therefore serum may not be the best measure of zinc homeostasis.  A mineral test can be another alternative method of assessing zinc levels and is available through our clinic as explained here.

If you need help building a robust immune system, book an appointment with our naturopath.


About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://


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Optimise recovery

The amino acid leucine is of particular importance to female athletes keen to optimise recovery across the menstrual cycle. Leucine is one of the nine essential amino acids the body needs to obtain through the diet. Leucine along with other amino acids, are required for protein synthesis, tissue repair and nutrient absorption.

The demand for protein changes throughout the menstrual cycle.  The fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone have a profound effect on muscle turnover and protein synthesis. Amino acids like leucine are harder to access during the high hormonal phase (day 12 to day 23 of a typical 28 day cycle).  It is suggested to be harder for females to build and maintain muscle during this hormonal phase making it even more important to ensure adequate intake of essential amino acids during this time.

Strength training including weights or resistance stimulates muscles to take up leucine (and other amino acids) and triggers muscular growth.  Leucine can help prevent the deterioration of muscle with age so it is super important for masters athletes to obtain adequate leucine in order to optimise recovery.

The richest sources of bio-available protein including leucine are in eggs, milk, fish, and meats. Milk contains both whey and casein protein.  Whey is more easily absorbed and is higher in leucine than casein.  Whey is also digested at a much faster rate than casein, ensuring blood leucine levels rise soon after ingestion and triggering protein synthesis responsible for building muscle. Hence why many athletes swear by chocolate milk as their preferred recovery drink. Female athletes need additional leucine to optimise recovery and would benefit from options such as a post-workout smoothie including yogurt, milk, protein powder or almond butter.

Recent research also suggests that the combination of other highly bio-available proteins rich in leucine results in more favourable muscle hypertrophy compared to other proteins such as whole milk protein, casein and soy protein.

Vegans and athletes with dairy intolerance

Athletes who choose to avoid dairy need not feel they are missing out. Interestingly, a recent study found both whey and rice protein isolate administration post-resistance exercise improved body composition and exercise performance with no differences between the two groups when taken in adequate amounts.

Leucine-rich foods

Leucine can also be found in plant-based proteins included including soy, lentils, kidney beans, tofu, quinoa, hummus, rice, and almonds. These plant proteins contain approximately 50% less leucine. Therefore vegan athletes need to pay attention to getting enough high-quality plant proteins that offer the optimal amount of leucine (about 2.5 grams per meal or snack).

Vegans want to consistently enjoy soy, beans, legumes, seeds and/or nuts regularly at every meal and snack. Don’t have just porridge for breakfast; add organic soy milk and walnuts.  Don’t snack on just an apple; slather apple slices with peanut butter.  A blend of rice and pea protein powders makes a good substitute for whey-based protein powders. Some plant-based protein powders also provide added amino acids, making them a good choice for dairy-intolerant or plant-based athletes.

As a general guide 2 grams of leucine can be found in 120 grams beef, 130 grams almonds, 400 grams tofu, 3 eggs, 600ml cow’s milk or 900ml soy milk, 380 grams lentils, 350 grams kidney beans, 70 grams cheddar cheese, 350 grams yogurt, 27 grams whey protein isolate,  50 grams rice protein powder.

Elite athletes with large volumes of training may struggle to obtain adequate leucine from their diet alone,  especially if vegan.  These athletes may consider using protein and collagen powders including leucine, isoleucine and valine 30 minutes pre and post-workouts in addition to a diet rich in leucine to optimise recovery.

This table compares the leucine content of plant and animal foods.

Animal food Plant food (swap) Leucine
(g) approx
Eggs, 1 large Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons 0.5
Milk, ½ cup Soy milk, low fat, 1 cup 0.5
Tuna, 25 grams Black beans, 1/2 cup 0.7
Chicken, 60 grams cooked Tofu, extra firm, 170 grams 1.4
Cheese, 14 grams Almonds, 21 grams 0.3
Beef, 40 grams Lentils, 1 cup 1.3

We recommend including a variety of leucine rich foods in your diet in order to optimise recovery.

Most women’s daily protein intake should account for 30% of their diet to optimise recovery. A gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is adequate for recreational athletes, while elite athletes may require up to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, especially when competing in power and high-end endurance sports. On lighter recovery days protein intake can be reduced slightly keeping in mind other processes in the body require adequate protein intake (hormones and immune cells for example).

Consuming 20-25 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing a session is ideal for optimal recovery while having a protein-rich snack such as a high protein, low-fat yogurts such as YoPro or Chibani Fit at bedtime can boost protein synthesis by 22 %.

When you wake in the morning you are in a catabolic state after fasting for 10-12 hours during the night while sleeping. Having a protein-rich breakfast is really important to optimise recovery, restock your glycogen stores, fuel your daily activities and prevent overeating and sugar cravings later in the day. Great breakfast options to optimise recovery include scrambled eggs on toast or an omelette with sweet potato and veggies, a protein-rich smoothie, porridge with added yogurt or protein powder or scrambled tofu.


About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://