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)
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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.
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
burrito Attribution License
Tempeh Autumn Salad by Nora Kuby Attribution License