How many times have you heard that you have to drink milk to have strong bones? Although your body needs calcium, there are better, healthier sources of calcium without the deleterious effects of dairy products. Marketing promoting milk and its “higher” calcium content is seriously misleading. “You can get all the calcium you need from a vegetarian or vegan diet,” says Dr. Robert Graham, health director of Performance Kitchen and co-founder of FRESH Med in New York. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you’re on the right track.
How Much Calcium Do I Need?
Your calcium needs depend on your age and gender, says Stacie Hassing, RDN, LD, co-founder of The Real Food Dietitians and co-author of The real food table. The average adult needs 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day. Yet, for women over 50 and men over 71, that increases to 1,200 mg per day. A point to remember? “Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium in the body, which is why some foods like orange juice, milk and some breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” explains- she. Despite the constant promotion of milk for its vitamin D content, it is not natural. All the vitamin D in cow’s milk is fortified, as is the case with many plant milks.
Benefits of Calcium
One of the most well-known benefits of calcium is maintaining and building strong bones and teeth, but it’s important for many other functions in your body. “Your heart, muscles, nerves, and circulatory system all need calcium to function properly,” says Hassing.
There is no doubt that maintaining healthy bone strength is important. Yes, it can help prevent fractures when we have an accident, but it’s not just falls that can damage our bones. Osteoporosis and osteopenia (the early onset of osteoporosis) cause the bones to become weak and fragile. The disease tends to occur in older people, as humans lose bone mass as they get older (starting in their 30s), but those first three decades of your life are opportunities to build a strong foundation to prevent osteoporosis . About 10 million Americans over the age of 50 have the condition, but another 43 million have been diagnosed with osteopenia, or low bone mass. Although other lifestyle choices can be preventative (such as regular weight-bearing exercise), getting enough calcium certainly helps.
What foods contain calcium?
A plethora of whole foods contain calcium, but some are significantly higher than others. It is true that some animal products contain a significant amount of calcium, including cow’s milk, yogurt, sardines and canned salmon with bones. However, an abundance of plant-based foods are also high in calcium. Additionally, the calcium found in many plant-based foods, such as dark leafy greens, is more bioavailable than the calcium found in milk. The body absorbs about 33% of the total calcium from dairy products, but 62% of the calcium from broccoli is absorbed during digestion. Other calcium-rich plant-based foods include tofu, fortified nut milks, beans, kale, tahini, sweet potatoes, watercress, okra, chia seeds and almonds, says Graham. You can also find many calcium-fortified orange juices and cereals at the supermarket.
Best Vegan Sources of Calcium
While the list of calcium-containing plant foods is long, Hassing offers some of the best sources for vegans.
1 Nuts and seeds
When choosing between nut butters, opt for almond for the most calcium. While many nuts and seeds contain modest amounts of calcium, almonds reign supreme at 75 milligrams per 30-gram serving (about 20 almonds). Hazelnuts come in at 56 milligrams per serving, and while slightly lower at 42 milligrams per serving, tahini is a versatile and delicious way to boost the calcium intake of any meal.
Replace quinoa with amaranth from time to time. With 80 grams of calcium per quarter cup (dry), this ancient grain adds both antioxidants, fiber and a boost of calcium to any Buddha bowl. We also like to swap a morning bowl of oats for this Amaranth Almond Berry Porridge.
Navy beans (white beans), kidney beans and chickpeas are the calcium powerhouses of legumes. Navy beans lead the charts with 132 milligrams of calcium per one-cup serving, followed by kidney beans and chickpeas with 93 and 99 milligrams, respectively. Use all three in a deliciously hearty combination of a vegan chili.
4 minimally processed soybeans
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all stellar sources of vegan calcium. A single three-ounce serving of tofu provides 10% of the recommended daily amount of calcium, tempeh provides about 6% of what you need (78 milligrams per 2.5-ounce serving), and a cup of edamame provides approximately 9% of the recommended daily amount. Soy milk is also a solid option. Not only does it naturally contain calcium, but many are fortified with up to a third of the calcium you need per day (this is the same as cow’s milk).
We don’t recommend consuming a spoonful of molasses to meet your daily calcium needs, but this sticky substance can be incorporated in small amounts into a mixture of delicious dishes. Try making a batch of nuts muhammara dip or bake a batch of this addictive cinnamon pecan granola. Just one tablespoon of this product contains 200 milligrams of calcium, which is 20% of what most adults need every day!
6 Dark leafy vegetables
There are countless reasons to increase your intake of green vegetables, and calcium happens to be one of them. A humble 120 grams of broccoli (just over a cup) provides 112 milligrams of calcium, and the generally underutilized okra contains 77 milligrams for the same amount. Other dark greens such as kale, collard greens, and bok choy also contain calcium, but not as much as these two options.
How do you know if you are getting enough calcium?
The only way to tell if you’re chronically low in calcium is through a blood test, Hassing says. Signs that you might be weak include muscle cramps, brittle nails, easy hair breakage, poor circulation that causes tingling and numbness in your fingers and toes, and irregular heartbeat. If you’re concerned that your levels are low, talk with your doctor about getting a blood test. For most vegans, Graham recommends eating calcium-rich foods and/or taking a calcium supplement to get all you need.
Do you need a calcium supplement?
You may need to take supplements if a blood test shows you have low calcium. Still, because the standard American diet is 65% processed foods, Graham generally recommends supplementation for most Americans, especially women over 50. “Calcium is best absorbed when you take 500 mg or less at a time,” he says, adding that current recommendations call for 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg in divided doses, ideally taken with vitamin D.
For more on vegan health and nutrition, read:
Study finds going vegan adds 10 years to your life
How to Get Enough Iron on a Vegan Diet
I Tried Herbal Whole30 and Here’s What Happened