Calcium doesn’t get as much attention as protein when it comes to vegan nutrition, yet calcium is something that vegans might want to pay better attention to. Recent studies do suggest that vegans had lower bone densities and are at higher risk of fractures. To get an idea of how vegans get calcium, I made six sample vegan meal plans and calculated the calcium in them. Even a healthy vegan diet did not always meet calcium RDAs of 1000mg/day. (see the infographic here)
The issue of vegan calcium is a bit complex because you have to factor in bioavailability. Our bodies have a biological need for about 250-300mg of calcium per day. The calcium RDA was set based on dairy as the source of calcium. About 1/3 of calcium from dairy is bioavailable, meaning that our bodies can absorb it, hence the RDA of 1000mg.
Most vegan sources of calcium have a much lower bioavailability than dairy (jump down to see a chart of calcium absorption rates here). This is because they contain high amounts of oxalates (oxalic acid) and/or phytic acid, both of which bind to calcium and prevent it from getting absorbed. For example, spinach, which is high in oxalic acid, has a bioavailability of just about 5%. Even though spinach has lots of calcium in it, it pales in comparison to kale as a source of calcium, which has a bioavailability of about 59%. Youd have to eat 4cups of spinach to get the same amount of calcium as available in 1 cup of kale! (read more about spinach and bioavailability here)
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Bioavailable Vegan Sources of Calcium
- 2 Food First – Then Supplements
- 3 Infographics
- 4 How Do Vegans Get Calcium (Infographic #1)
- 5 How Do Vegans Get Calcium (Infographic #2)
- 6 How Vegans Can Get Enough Calcium
- 7 Why the 1000mg/day RDA for Calcium?
Some vegan sources of calcium have a higher bioavailability than dairy.
So, if you ate 2 cups of collard greens, you would meet your biological needs for calcium but still fall below the RDA of 1000mg per day.
In determining these best natural vegan sources of calcium, I factored in the amount of calcium in the food as well as the bioavailability. Sorry to break it to you vegans but, if you don’t eat leafy green vegetables, you are probably going to have a hard time meeting your calcium RDAs on a vegan diet!
Best Bioavailable Vegan Sources of Calcium
1. Cabbage Family Greens
Dark leafy greens in the Brassicaceae family (cabbage family) are great vegan sources of calcium. The contain massive amounts of calcium, such as the 158mg found in a cup of Chinese cabbage, and the calcium has a high bioavailability. About 3 cups of these greens will meet your biological calcium needs. Try eating some of these calcium-rich foods in the cabbage family:
- Collard greens
- Chinese spinach
- Boy choy
- Turnip greens
- Mustard greens
There are many types of seaweed and most contain a notable amount of calcium. Because seaweed has low levels of oxalic acid and phytates, we can assume that this calcium is getting absorbed. Seaweed also contains many trace minerals which are important for bone health. Maybe that is why people in Eastern Asia has such a low rate of osteoporosis than in the West even though they dont consume much dairy.
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3. Prunes, Raisins, and Dried Figs
1 cup of prunes contains about 100mg of calcium, or 10% of the RDA. There is some phytic acid in prunes which may reduce calcium absorption, but there is also evidence from a study which found that eating prunes is linked to higher bone density. It isnt just the calcium amount in prunes which matters for bone health. Prunes also contain high amounts of polyphenols which are important for bone health. Raisins and dried figs are also high in calcium and polyphenols, so they are also good vegan sources of calcium.
4. Roasted Soy Nuts
1 cup of roasted soy nuts provides about 240mg of calcium. Because of the oxalic acid content of soy beans, much of this calcium isnt absorbable. However, when you roast soy beans, it destroys some of the oxalic acid so the calcium is better absorbed. This makes for a great calcium-rich vegan snack.
5. Sprouted Beans
As you can see from the calcium table below, beans dont provide much bioavailable calcium because they have so much phytic acid. However, if you soak and sprout beans, you will significantly reduce the amount of phytic acid and thus get more calcium from them.
*When soaking beans for cooking, put a splash of apple cider vinegar in the water. This breaks down more phytic acid. Also remember to throw out that soaking water (give it to your plants) and cook it in new water.
6. Soaked Almonds
Like sprouting, soaking also reduces phytic acid content in foods like nuts, legumes, and beans. Almonds are particularly loaded with calcium (about 378mg per cup!) and soaking them will help you absorb this calcium. Raw food recipe books have some great ideas of things to make with soaked nuts, like pie crusts and cheese-like spreads.
7. Amaranth Grain
Amaranth is an ancient grain which contains high amounts of protein, iron, and magnesium. One cup also provides about 110mg of calcium. While there is phytic acid in amaranth grain, soaking and cooking will reduce the levels and help you absorb the calcium.
Food First – Then Supplements
You should always aim to get your calcium from natural sources. Natural sources of calcium will have cofactors which aid in the absorption of calcium. You probably already know that Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption (which unfortunately isn’t found in many vegan foods so you’ll need to get out in the sun more!) and also magnesium. Not as many people know the importance of Vitamin K for bone health. It basically acts like a shuttle and takes calcium where it needs to go. Vitamin K is found in high amounts in leafy green vegetables — one more reason that greens are such a good vegan source of calcium. Read more about Vitamin K here.
If you do decide to take a calcium supplement, I’d recommend taking one which also contains Vitamin D, magnesium, and also vitamin K2. Jarrow makes a good vegan supplement called Bone Up which you can buy here. Note that there is two versions: vegan and non-veg. You can find other recommended vegan bone health supplements here.
Like most vegans, I am constantly being asked where I get my protein from. This is rather annoying because it is ridiculously easy to get enough protein on the vegan diet. I even made some visual guides to show how it all adds up. I wish I could say the same thing for calcium in the vegan diet.
To see how much calcium vegans might be getting, I decided to make some sample vegan meal plans and calculate the amount of calcium in them. It wasn’t too surprising to see that a junk food vegan diet falls really short of the Institute of Medicine’s RDA for calcium (read more about why you need calcium and how much here). I was, however,surprised though to see that even a “healthy” vegan diet doesn’t always meet calcium RDAs.
I’m not sure how vegans are going to react to this post because most of the vegan advocates I know are insistent about the idea that you can easily get enough calcium on the vegan diet. In part, I agree with them. There are plenty of vegan sources of calcium, including natural sources like greens, almonds, sesame seeds, and amaranth, and fortified sources like those found in plant milks, tofu, and orange juice. But, as the infographics below will show, you might not be getting enough calcium on the vegan diet even if you are eating healthily. No wonder research has shown that vegans have low bone densities and higher risk of bone fracture (source)!
Unlike with some other nutrient deficiencies, the effects of inadequate calcium intake won’t be seen until later on in life. So, it is particularly important to pay attention to how much calcium you are consuming.
How Do Vegans Get Calcium (Infographic #1)
How Do Vegans Get Calcium (Infographic #2)
How Vegans Can Get Enough Calcium
I would highly recommend taking a log of everything you eat for a week and then doing a nutritional breakdown. Or, better yet, have a nutritionist do this for you. If you find yourself below the calcium RDAs, then you’ll need to alter your diet to ensure you get enough. Here are some things you can do to get enough calcium.
Eat More Cruciferous Greens
Not only are cruciferous greens (greens in the cabbage family) high in calcium, but this form of calcium is generally absorbed really well. Just about 2 cups of collard greens, for example, will meet your biological needs for calcium – even though you might still be under the 1000mg RDA. Meet calcium RDAs on a vegan diet without relying on fortified foods, vegans will probably need to eat greens twice per day.
Eat More Calcium-Rich Foods
Along with greens, there are plenty of other vegan foods rich in calcium. These include tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, dried figs, prunes, rice bran, and amaranth (read the top vegan sources of calcium here). When you get calcium from natural sources, you also are going to get a lot of the cofactors which are necessary to absorb the calcium and transport it where it needs to go, like vitamin K and magnesium.
Fortified Foods as a Vegan Source of Calcium
I actually think it is a pretty bad idea to rely on fortified foods as a source of calcium (for reasons which I outline here). The main reason is that fortified foods are going to lack the cofactors needed to absorb and use the calcium. But, if you are struggling to meet calcium RDAs on the vegan diet, then you might want to include some fortified foods in your diet like soy milk or orange juice.
If you are going to rely on fortified foods for your calcium, then please PAY ATTENTION! Some plant milks, for example, only provided 2% of the calcium RDA whereas others provided up to 45%. There were also 4 different types of calcium used to fortify the products, some of which get absorbed better by the body.
Vegan Calcium Supplements
Just like with fortified foods, it doesn’t seem wise to rely on supplements to get your calcium because you will be lacking the cofactors needed to absorb and use the calcium in the supplement. However, if you aren’t eating calcium-rich vegan foods like leafy greens, you might want to consider a supplement.
Supplementing does seem like a better way of getting calcium than relying on fortified foods. It is easier to take a pill than to calculate how much calcium is in each fortified food you eat and also what the absorption rate is.
If you do opt for a vegan calcium supplement, I’d recommend getting one which also contains vitamin magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, and other minerals. These will help ensure your body is actually absorbing and using the calcium. Jarrow makes a good one called Bone Up. You can also check out our recommendations for vegan bone health supplements here.
Don’t Forget about Calcium Cofactors
It isn’t enough just to make sure you are getting enough calcium and supporting vitamins and minerals for bone health. Performing weight-bearing exercises is incredibly important for your bone health. You might also want to cut back on caffeine consumption as it can decrease calcium absorption while increasing calcium depletion. Sodium will also decrease calcium absorption, so lay off the salt.
Why the 1000mg/day RDA for Calcium?
I based these infographics on the Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily intake for calcium of 1000mg/day for most adults. Interestingly, the daily intake of calcium recommended by agencies aren’t the world can differ. For example, the European Commission only recommends 800mg/day. Despite this, I think it is better to play it safe and go with the higher RDA of 1000mg/day.
What about the idea that vegans need less calcium than omnivores? This is based on a myth that protein leaches calcium from bones and, since vegans supposedly consume less protein than omnivores, they thus need less calcium. There is no solid evidence supporting this claim (read more about this at Authority Nutrition or from Jack Norris). While some vegans might not want to admit it, most forms of dairy are a good source of calcium (read more about whether milk is bad or good for you here).
Further, calcium-rich vegan foods often contain high amounts of oxalic acid, an antinutrient which blocks calcium absorption. According to Ginny Messina, we only absorb about 5% of the calcium from leafy greens like spinach and 17% of the calcium from beans. Compare this to the 30% of calcium which is absorbed from milk and you start to see why vegans might need to exceed the 1000mg/day RDA for calcium. There are some vegan sources of calcium which have an even higher absorption rate than milk – such as cruciferous leafy green vegetables (like kale and cabbage) where the absorption is around 50%. It would take a lot of work to calculate the absorbed amount of calcium from every food we eat, and this information isn’t always readily available, so Messina recommends aiming for the 1000mg/day RDA.
If you are worried about not getting enough calcium, then look at our recommended vegan bone health supplements here.
Other Images Were Sourced from Flickr:
Waffles with orange juice pour Attribution-NoDerivs License
Oatmeal, Part 2 by Rachel Hathaway Attribution-NonCommercial License
Apple Snack Attribution License
Apple Almond Butter by Miriam Kato Attribution-NonCommercial License
Breaded Sietan and Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce by Emilie Hardman
Masoor Dal Tadka Attribution License
Amaranth and Spring Peas Vegan Meatballs with Tahini Sauce by Joana Petrova
Whole Wheat Bagel, Cream Cheese, Orange Juice by Justin Smith
January 19 by Dan LaMee Attribution License
Afternoon Raspberry Smoothie by Rasmus Andersson Attribution-NoDerivs License
Banana Boat Army by Mike Attribution License
LBV Beefless and cheese sandwich by Tamara Evans Attribution License
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Tempeh Autumn Salad by Nora Kuby Attribution License