If you’re experiencing frequent colds, or your sense of smell or taste appears to be off, or you have wounds that seem to take longer than usual to heal, you could be suffering from a deficiency of zinc in your diet.

What exactly is zinc? In this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we examine the metal, understand why it’s important to get enough of it in our diet and look at good sources of zinc for consumption.

What is Zinc and Why is it Important?

Zinc is a metal, often referred to by nutritionists as an essential trace element because very small amounts of zinc are a necessity for human health. Zinc is found in cells throughout the human body.

This metal is needed for proper growth and maintenance. Zinc is critical, for example, for wound healing, blood clotting, and proper thyroid functioning. Zinc also plays an important role in maintaining vision, as well as for the senses of taste and smell.

Good Sources of Zinc

Large amounts of zinc are contained in high-protein foods of both animal and plant origin. According to the Journal of Nutrition, the richest sources of zinc include oysters, beef, veal, pork and lamb with lesser amounts occurring in fish.

Vegetarians will not experience zinc deficiency if they consume foods like nuts, whole grains, legumes and yeast in sufficient quantities. It’s important to note, however, that fruits and vegetables are not particularly strong sources of zinc because the zinc in plant proteins is not as readily available for use by the body as zinc from animal proteins. This means that people who do not eat meat should monitor their zinc intake carefully to avoid a deficiency.

What are the Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency?

A zinc deficiency can be difficult to self-diagnose, since many of the symptoms could be signs of other problems. That said, according to the Journal of Nutrition, individuals who do not incorporate sufficient quantities of zinc can present symptoms of a wide spectrum of medical conditions, from diarrhea to pneumonia and many common medical conditions, including the common cold and protracted healing of wounds. As always, please make sure to consult a doctor if you are worried you might be zinc deficient.

Are Zinc Supplements a Good Idea?

You should only take zinc supplements after consulting with your doctor. Taken improperly, zinc supplements can have side effects, including diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting. These symptoms generally occur within 3 to 10 hours of taking the supplement. Symptoms usually disappear shortly after stopping supplements.

What is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Zinc?

The amount of zinc you need in your diet depends on several factors, primarily age and gender. Other factors, including pregnancy and illness, are also important. Finally, women who are breastfeeding generally require higher amounts of zinc.

You should also consult with your doctor, who can recommend the proper amount of zinc based on your individual circumstances. That said, infants should generally have 2 to 3 milligrams (mg) of zinc per day. Children 1 to 3 years of age should have 3 mg; from 4 to 8 years, 5 mg; and 9 to 13, 8 mg. Adolescent and adult males need 11 mg per day. Adolescent females need 9 mg, and adult females need 8 mg per day.

Eating a sufficient amount of zinc is just one important component of a healthy diet. Knowing how much (and what type of) fat, starch, protein, vitamins, minerals and trace elements are optimal for maintaining good health can be complicated. Above all, you should be aware that dramatic changes in your dietary habits, like starting a meatless diet, or attempting to lose large amounts of weight, could endanger your health. Before you make such changes, always consult with your doctor.