Zinc deficiency can result in loss of appetite, impaired immune system function and slower growth in general. Severe deficiency can cause hair loss, eye and skin problems, diarrhea, weight loss, and hypogonadism and impotence in men.
It isn't common in developed countries, and the deficiency is difficult to detect because the amount of zinc in the fluid part of the blood (the part that is tested) doesn't represent the amount that's found in the cells. Deficiency may be due to a lack of zinc in the diet or problems with absorption.
Zinc is found in both plant and animal sources of food. Oysters contain the most per serving, but meats, other seafood, dairy products and poultry also provide sufficient amounts. Plant sources include legumes, nuts and whole grains. Adult males need 11 milligrams per day; adult females need 8.0 milligrams per day.
People with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) or certain types of gastrointestinal surgery may have difficulty absorbing zinc. Pregnant women may be at a greater risk because the fetus requires large amounts. Vegetarians may require extra zinc because many of the plant sources of zinc are also high in phytates, which reduce absorbability.
Speak to your health care provider before taking zinc supplements, which can potentially lead to zinc toxicity.
Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health, "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Zinc." Accessed June 8, 2011. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/.