When choosing to follow a vegan or plant-based diet, you might have been misled to believe that it can be challenging to get all the nutrients your body needs. When thinking about calcium sources in the diet, most people immediately think about dairy products, including milk and cheese. Whilst these sources are the most well-known, there are, in fact, many plant-based foods high in calcium.
What Is Calcium
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body found mainly in bones and teeth. When calcium intake is adequate, bones benefit; when intake is low, the bones suffer.
Calcium is an important mineral to consider no matter what diet you choose to follow. In addition to maintaining bone density (and making them less fracture-prone), calcium plays a role in other body functions including muscle contractions, hormone release and transmission of neural messages. Calcium is involved in blood clotting, and may play a part in maintaining blood pressure and cholesterol levels. When dietary intake is insufficient, the body leeches calcium from the bones which directly contributes to weakened bones.
Read more on dairy and calcium in this post
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
How much calcium you need in your diet is determined by a few individual factors. Adults are recommended to aim for approximately about 1000mg per day, with an increase to 1200 mg/day for women over 50.
Certain individuals need to pay extra attention to their calcium intake as they either fail to get enough calcium in their regular diets, or the calcium is not well absorbed. This includes:
- Vegans and vegetarians
- Those with compromised gut function such as Celiac, Chrohn’s disease or IBS
- Women over 50
Plant Sources Of Calcium
Getting enough calcium in a plant-based diet isn’t impossible, but it does require some planning. While it’s true that dairy is a good source of calcium, it’s not the only one out there! Contrary to popular belief, milk may have no effect (and possibly a negative effect) on bone strength. Calcium is an essential nutrient, because the human body doesn’t produce enough of its own calcium making it necessary to get in your diet.
Vegan sources of calcium to stock up on include:
- Tofu (depending on brand and how it's made, but roughly 350mg per 100g of firm tofu)
- Collard greens (268 mg per 1 cup cooked)
- Kale (172 mg per 1 cup cooked)
- Bok choy (158 mg per 1 cup cooked)
- Spinach (136 mg per 1 cup cooked)
- Broccoli rabe (200 mg per 1 cup cooked)
- Tempeh (111 mg per 100g)
- Pinto beans (109 mg per half cup cooked)
- Chickpeas (105 mg per half cup cooked)
- Sesame seeds (88 mg per tablespoon)
- Almonds (75mg per ounce)
- Tahini (64 mg per tablespoon)
- Chia seeds (65 mg per tablespoon)
- Broccoli (60 mg per cup, cooked)
- Oranges (55 mg in 1 orange)
- Blackstrap molasses (41 mg per tablespoon)
- Figs, dried (32.5 mg per fig)
How To Optimize The Absorption Of Plant-Based Calcium
Eating your calcium-rich foods together with vitamin D and magnesium-rich foods will help your body to absorb the calcium more easily.
Iron and zinc are 2 minerals that compete with calcium. Supplements or foods especially rich in these minerals should be avoided at the same time as calcium.
Certain plant foods like spinach, sweet potatoes, and legumes contain oxalates (oxalic acid) and phytates. Oxalates and phytates, are often referred to as antinutrients and can bind to calcium, inhibiting their absorption.
Phytates are antioxidant compounds found in whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, and seeds. You can reduce the phytates and make calcium more bioavailable by soaking your whole grains, nuts, and beans before you cook them.
Oxalates are found in leafy greens such as spinach, chard, and kale. Again, by cooking your greens you will reduce the amount of oxalic acid and improve calcium absorption.
Note: Even with cooking, the calcium in high-oxalate sources, like spinach and chard, may not be as available to the body as low-oxalate sources, such as kale, broccoli, and mustard greens.
Tannins are found in black tea (and in wine) and are the compound responsible for the astringent (powdery) feeling in your mouth. If calcium absorption or bone density is a concern, avoid drinking black tea with your meals.
Generally, it should not be a challenge to obtain adequate calcium through your diet. If you fall into one of the higher-risk groups mentioned above, it would be important to discuss your calcium intake and whether supplementation is right for you with your health care professional.
Furthermore, if you are prone to kidney stones, it is even more important to speak to your healthcare professional before you begin supplementing with calcium, as excess or high doses of calcium can cause larger and more frequent stones
Calcium supplements can create digestive challenges including constipation and bloating. Taking calcium supplements together with magnesium or with food can help ease these symptoms. Your body has a limited capacity to absorb calcium, so rather than taking 1000 mg once a day it would be preferable to take 500mg twice a day.
Tips for Getting Calcium in Your Vegan Diet
Increase Vitamin D Intake.
Vitamin D supports your body in absorbing and utilizing calcium. Along with regular exposure to sunlight, a diet including regular plant-based sources of vitamin D, including mushrooms, and fortified plant milk and orange juice are a few ways to improve calcium utilization in your body.
Ensure You Are Getting Enough Magnesium
Magnesium helps your body absorb and retain calcium to help build and strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis. Since your body is not good at storing magnesium, it is vital to make sure you get enough of it in your diet. Magnesium is found in nuts (especially almonds and cashews), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, sunflower), whole grains, legumes, tofu, and many vegetables, including spinach, Swiss chard, summer squash, turnip and mustard greens, broccoli, sea vegetables, cucumbers, and celery. Reduce sugar and alcohol, which increase the excretion of magnesium.
Include A Few Calcium-Rich Foods Daily
Instead of eating simply one serving of calcium-rich food per day, work on adding a few servings to increase your dietary calcium intake. Get creative, and try combining a few calcium-rich foods in a meal. Remember to look for fortified plant-based milks as a further source of calcium.
Try New Foods & Recipes
it can be challenging to change your regular food rotation but taking a step out of your comfort zone and adding some less-common plant-based calcium sources like molasses, seaweed, and chia seeds to your grocery shopping list. Molasses can be used in in baked goods and certain savory preparations, seaweed is great as an out-of-hand snack or for homemade sushi. Chia seeds are a great addition to smoothies or can be used in certain recipes as a vegan egg substitute. They are also delicious soaked into chia pudding (perhaps topped with a drizzle of molasses).
When it comes to building and maintaining strong bones, exercise is essential, especially weight-bearing activities such as walking, dancing, jogging, weightlifting, stair climbing, racquet sports, and hiking. Find something that you enjoy doing and make it a regular activity.
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You should be able to get all the calcium you need to meet your daily requirements from a plant-based diet. Including foods such as leafy greens (cooked to reduce the oxalic acid content), beans, and tahini in your diet will naturally boost the calcium content. If you're concerned about deficiency or are in an at-risk group, be sure to speak to your health care professional about supplementation.