Varsha is an enthusiast writer who loves to research on topics related to health and wellness.
Have you ever seen a cow or elephant up close? These enormous animals carry around their hefty weight on strong bones, much like ours. Where do you think these gigantic animals get the calcium to create their bones? Do they drink cow’s milk as the USDA recommends? Of course not. They eat plants.
While humans and animals certainly don’t build their bodies in the same way—or even digest food in exactly the same way—humans, like animals, can get the required calcium needed to build bones from plant foods. Our bones hold the largest store of the calcium in our bodies; when they’re healthy, bones are firm and rigid. The body doesn’t just use calcium to build bones, however; it also needs the mineral to clot blood and for many muscle and nerve functions.
Plant foods, like leafy green vegetables, have a better bioavailability of calcium than dairy products. This means that our bodies can better absorb and use the calcium present in these greens as compared to dairy foods. While dairy foods are rich in calcium, they are also rich in protein, which inhibits the body’s ability to absorb calcium. A vegan diet rich in greens and calcium-enriched foods will ensure the recommended intake of 1,000-1,200 milligrams a day is met.
In this section, I will help you understand your calcium requirements, and I will tell you how, as a vegan, you can successfully meet those requirements.
Most nutrition guidelines recommend getting between 800 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day, mostly from dairy products. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines state that to avoid osteoporosis and grow healthy bones, these levels must be reached. However, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, healthy bones can be maintained with a daily consumption of 600 milligrams a day. And the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends between 400 and 500 milligrams daily, which is half of the U.S. recommended dietary allowance.
When paired with a healthy nonsmoking lifestyle, regular weight-bearing exer- cise, and healthy levels of vitamins D and K, the body can build and maintain healthy bones on a sensible vegan diet.
Never heard of vitamin K? That’s because it’s so easy to get all you need from natural foods that people rarely worry about it. Vitamin K helps blood to clot, protects bones, and prevents cell damage from oxidation. If you find yourself bruising and bleeding easily or having liver, gallbladder, or digestive system problems, you may need more vitamin K. Good sources are spinach, Brussels sprouts, carrots, green beans, peas, broccoli, kale, and asparagus.
How To Get Adequate Calcium In Vegan Diet
Since you won’t be consuming dairy products to reach your daily calcium requirements, you may be wondering what foods you should eat. Don’t worry. You have tons of wonderful, natural vegan foods available to you that will ensure you have enough calcium in your diet. Just be sure to eat a variety of the foods in the Following Table on a regular basis.
A few leafy green vegetables—spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard, and rhubarb—are high in naturally occurring compounds called oxalates that bind calcium and make it essentially unavailable to the body. But the availability of calcium from low-oxalate vegetables—kale, collards, broccoli, and turnip greens—can be as high as 50 percent. Calcium absorption from soyfoods, like calcium-set tofu (tofu that is processed with calcium sulfate) and fortified soymilk, is around 25 to 30 percent, which is about the same as from cow’s milk. Calcium absorption from nuts and legumes is somewhat lower, around 20 percent.
The recommended intake of 1, 000 milligrams of calcium is based on the assumption that most people absorb around 30 percent of the calcium in their diet. If you’re eating a varied diet that includes several different types of calcium sources, including leafy greens and soy products, you don’t need to worry that some of the calcium from other foods is absorbed less efficiently.
It’s possible to get plenty of calcium just from eating foods that are naturally rich in this mineral, but it does take some effort. (This is equally true for people who consume dairy foods, since many people who drink milk don’t meet calcium requirements. That’s why so many products on the market—from cereals to juices to protein bars—are fortified with calcium.) Using fortified foods like juices and nondairy milks can make it easier to meet calcium recommendations on a vegan diet.
It’s also helpful to pay attention to the effects of processing. For example, frozen leafy greens are higher in calcium than fresh, although this is simply because their volume tends to be more concentrated. Processing also affects the amount of calcium in different types of tofu. Tofu production involves ingredients that cause soymilk to curdle. The two most common—often used together—are magnesium-chloride (nigari in Japanese) and calcium-sulfate. When calcium-sulfate is used, tofu is often an excellent source of calcium. Also, firm tofu tends to have a higher
calcium content than soft. It’s important to read package labels, though, since the amount of calcium in different brands and different types of tofu varies widely.
Dietary Sources of Calcium
Beans and Grains
Enriched Wheat Flour
Cooked White Beans
Nuts and Seeds
Sesame Seeds, whole
Enriched Orange Juice
Foods to Avoid
Calcium isn’t the only player in the bone health game. Excess acids, protein, and alcohol cause the body to leach calcium out of the bones, setting them up for fractures and osteoporosis.
For example, several well-publicized studies have shown that soda drinkers of all ages have higher rates of broken bones and fractures than people who don’t drink soda. Most sodas, both regular and diet, contain phosphorus or citric acid. The phosphorus and citric acid in these drinks create too much acidity in the body. And your body is so smart that it can balance the acid- alkaline ratio by drawing calcium (an alkaline material) out of the bones.
The human body likes to stay in a narrow range on the acid-alkaline scale. Calcium is the most plentiful mineral in the human body and it is alkaline, as opposed to acidic. A diet high in acidic foods like dairy, meat, and refined sugars, can lead to fatigue, stiffness, and canker sores. When the body gets too acidic, calcium is drawn out of the bones for an alkalinizing effect, therefore evening out the balance, but weakening the bones.
Like acids, excessive amounts of protein also affect bone health. A diet high in animal protein is high in sulfur, because amino acids contain sulfur. These sulfur-based amino acids negatively affect the body’s pH balance, causing the bones to release calcium stores so the body can become more alkaline. Protein from plants have less sulfur-based amino acids, so they’re already more alkaline and less likely to cause calcium leaching. So, if you want healthy bones, you should avoid meat and eat more green leafy veggies!
Tips For Getting Enough Calcium
- Eat 6 to 8 servings of calcium-rich foods per day. This allows you to mix and match small servings of a variety of calcium-rich foods or get all of your calcium from larger amounts of just a few foods. One serving is ½ cup fortified plant milk or juice, ½ cup cooked, calcium-rich vegetables, ½ cup tofu or tempeh, 2 tablespoons almond butter or tahini, ¼ cup soynuts, or ½ cup dried figs.
- If you use calcium-fortified soymilk, give the carton a good shake before pouring since the calcium can settle to the bottom.
- Look for calcium-set tofu, which is tofu that includes calcium-sulfate as an ingredient.
- Learn to love greens! The ones that are low in oxalates—collards, kale, turnip, and mustard greens—are good sources of well-absorbed calcium as well as other nutrients that are important for bone health.
- Make your own trail mix using soynuts, almonds, and chopped figs and keep it on hand for snacks.
- Choose calcium-fortified brands when you drink fruit juices.
- If your intake falls short, make up the difference with a supplement.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.