Calcium is an important nutrient to consider when on a vegan diet. Although there’s calcium in plant-based foods, it may be difficult to eat and absorb enough for optimal nutrition.
Vegans should learn about this essential nutrient to ensure they get enough through diet and supplementation (if needed).
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What is Calcium?
Calcium is an essential mineral that supports many functions in the body. It’s considered essential because humans can’t produce calcium, therefore they must get enough from their diet (or supplements).
Calcium is often associated with drinking milk, and many people don’t know that other foods contain it. It’s important for vegans to learn what these foods are so they don’t become deficient in calcium.
What Does Calcium do for the Body?
Calcium’s major role in the body relates to bone health. We need calcium to create the structural component of bones and teeth 1 (although bone health is impacted by many factors, not just calcium).
Most of the body’s calcium is found in bones. Only about 1% of the body’s calcium is found circulating in the blood and elsewhere in the body 1.
The body makes sure blood calcium levels remain stable by storing or excreting excess 1. If there’s not enough calcium in its blood, the body will remove calcium from bones to keep its muscles working properly 1.
How Much Calcium do People Need?
The current recommendations for calcium intake, from Health Canada, are: 2
|Identified Group||Calcium Intake|
|Females age 19-50||1000 mg per day|
|Females age 50+||1200 mg per day|
|Males age 19-70||1000 mg per day|
|Males age 70+||1200 mg per day|
These recommendations are for average, healthy people 2. Speak to your doctor or dietitian to tailor these to your own needs.
Calcium Requirements for Vegetarians and Vegans
There isn’t a lot of research on vegan-specific calcium needs. Currently, the best recommendation is for vegans to meet the intake requirements specified for their age and gender group 2.
It was long thought that vegans didn’t need to worry about consuming as much calcium compared to omnivores. This was due to an inaccurate theory about animal protein or high-protein diets being bad for bone health.
This inaccurate theory led to the misguided assumption that vegan calcium requirements are lower compared to omnivores.
This myth has since been debunked by modern research. It seems vegans are best off meeting calcium intake requirements set out in the table above 2.
Protein Intake and Calcium
Some vegans question whether they need to follow general intake recommendations.
Research shows that consuming animal protein, or high-protein meals, increases the amount of calcium in urine 3, 4. It was thought this calcium leached from bones and that eating animal protein was bad for bone health 3, 4.
More recent research shows this isn’t completely true 4. Higher protein diets, on their own, are not related to poor bone health 4, 5, 7. Instead, higher protein in the diet may be helpful for bone health 4, 5, 7.
It seems higher calcium in urine after a high protein meal is likely from an increased absorption of calcium and not from calcium leaching from bones 4, 5, 6. If excess calcium is absorbed (more than the body needs) it’s excreted.
One study looked at whether higher protein intake can improve calcium absorption 8. It showed that, indeed, higher protein meals can improve absorption of calcium – even from a meal that’s low in calcium 8.
Calcium deficiency is almost always talked about in relation to bone health, osteoporosis and fracture risk.
These concerns tend to be long-term consequences of low calcium intake, although there is much more that goes into good bone health, including diet and lifestyle factors.
The reason osteoporosis is such a concern is that weaker bones are more likely to break (fracture). Since this is more common in older adults, recovery can be difficult and significantly reduce quality of life.
Osteomalacia and osteoporosis do not happen overnight. They are not often associated with early indicators or signs. Many people aren’t diagnosed with osteoporosis until they break a bone, and it may be a major bone, like a hip.
This is why it’s important to meet calcium needs throughout life and work towards a lifestyle that promotes good bone health 9.
Other Factors Impacting Bone Health
Calcium is just one of many factors that impact bone health. Genetics likely play a role as does estrogen levels in women (the decrease in estrogen during menopause is thought to worsen bone health) 9, 10.
Other nutrients and lifestyle factors that can improve bone health include:
- Weight bearing exercise 9, 10
- Vitamin D 9, 10
- Vitamin K 16
- Possibly selenium intake 12
- Possibly zinc intake 15
Some factors that could worsen bone health include:
- Smoking 9, 10
- Low protein diets 9, 10
- Too much or too little vitamin A (retinol, not beta-carotene) 13, 14
- Possibly vitamin B12 deficiency 11
- Low body mass index 10
- Alcohol abuse 10
Keep these factors in mind to create a diet/ lifestyle that meets your needs and maintains your bone health.
How to Get Enough Calcium on a Vegan Diet
It’s very challenging to meet calcium intake recommendations as a vegan unless you consume fortified foods.
Research supports the notion that vegans tend to have significantly lower calcium intakes compared to omnivores 17, 18. While calcium is only one factor impacting bone health, it’s important to consume enough, especially later in life.
It’s possible to meet calcium intake needs as a vegan, but careful focus on eating high-calcium foods is important. It’s also key to focus of foods that have calcium the body easily absorbs.
To meet calcium needs as a vegan, it’s best to consume a few servings of high-calcium foods along with other lower-calcium foods.
High calcium vegan foods include:
- Fortified plant-based milks
- Other fortified plant-based dairy alternatives (ex. yogurt)
- Calcium-set tofu and other soy foods
- Low-oxalate leafy greens
3 cups worth of the foods above should provide a good base-level daily intake of calcium. See the chart below for calcium amounts in other plant-based foods.
Read package labels to see if a food is fortified with calcium and if tofu is calcium-set. One of the ingredients should have the word calcium in it.
The daily value percentage should be 20-30% for a 1 cup serving for it to be considered a “good source” of calcium.
Other foods that contain calcium (in smaller amounts) are:
- Beans, especially white and navy
- Chia seeds
- Poppy seeds*
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potato
- Molasses (especially blackstrap)
*poppy seeds are very high in calcium but typically eaten in small quantities.
Oxalates and Calcium Absorption
When it comes to nutrition, how much you consume is only part of “getting enough”. How much the body can absorb is equally as important.
Oxalates are a naturally occurring compound found in plant foods. They bind to calcium in the digestive tract, preventing calcium absorption.
Some plant-based foods that are high in calcium are also high in oxalates. These high-oxalate foods are not good sources of calcium because their calcium is less readily absorbed.
Typically, leafy greens like spinach, swiss chard, endive and beet greens are high in both calcium and oxalates. Rhubarb is also very high in oxalates but isn’t a good source of calcium.
Some lower oxalate leafy greens include:
- Bok choy
- Mustard greens
- Turnip greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Brussels sprouts
It’s also helpful to boil high-oxalate vegetables, which can significantly reduce the amount of oxalate present. Boiling releases oxalates into the cooking water which you should discard if your goal is to lower oxalate content. Steaming or roasting vegetables is not a good way to lower oxalate content 19.
Vitamin D and Calcium Absorption
If you are vegan, learn how to get enough vitamin D on a plant-based diet.
Vegan Sources of Calcium
Below is a list of plant-based foods and the amount of calcium they contain. Calcium absorption from foods can vary greatly, but the foods listed below should have adequate absorption.
High-oxalate foods are not included in this list due to very low absorption of calcium, making them poor calcium sources.
Serving sizes for most of the vegetables, greens, soy foods, beans and fruits is 1 cup. Nuts and dried fruit have a serving size of ¼ cup and seeds plus molasses is a serving size of 2 tablespoons.
|Food (serving size)||Calcium (mg)|
|Fortified soy milk (250 mL)||316|
|Calcium-set tofu, firm, raw (266 g)||535|
|Bok choy, boiled and drained (180 g)||167|
|Broccoli, boiled and drained (165 g)||66|
|Kale, boiled and drained (137 g)||99|
|Mustard greens, boiled and drained (148 g)||175|
|Turnip greens, boiled and drained (152 g)||208|
|Watercress, raw (40 g)||43|
|Romaine lettuce, raw (59 g)||20|
|Brussels sprouts, boiled and drained (165 g)||59|
|Edamame, boiled and drained (190 g)||276|
|Tempeh (175 g)||195|
|White beans, boiled (190 g)||170|
|Chickpeas, boiled (173 g)||85|
|Navy beans, boiled (192 g)||133|
|Black beans, boiled (181 g)||49|
|Kidney beans, boiled (187 g)||65|
|Lentils, boiled (209 g)||40|
|Almonds, unblanched, dry roasted (35 g)||94|
|Walnuts (32 g)||19|
|Pistachios, raw (31 g)||33|
|Macadamia nuts, dry roasted (34 g)||23|
|Pecans (28 g)||20|
|Cashews, dry roasted (35 g)||16|
|Sesame seeds, shelled (18 g)||12|
|Tahini (28 g)||40|
|Chia seeds (21 g)||68|
|Flaxseeds, ground (14 g)||36|
|Hemp seeds, hulled (20 g)||15|
|Poppy seeds (18 g)||256|
|Sunflower seeds, hulled (18 g)||14|
|Pumpkin seeds (18 g)||8|
|Okra, boiled and drained (170 g)||130|
|Sweet potato, baked, skin removed (211 g)||80|
|Butternut squash, baked (217 g)||89|
|Cabbage, boiled, drained (159 g)||76|
|Raw figs (100 g)||35|
|Dry figs, uncooked (40 g)||64|
|Dry apricots, uncooked (55 g)||30|
|Oranges (190 g)||76|
|Blackcurrants, raw (59 g)||33|
|Blackberries, raw (152 g)||44|
|Raspberries, raw (130 g)||32|
|Fancy molasses (42 g)||88|
|Blackstrap molasses (41 g)||358|
I can’t find data on other plant-based dairy alternatives. The amount of calcium in these foods can be highly variable, so read labels to determine if it’s fortified (and with how much calcium).
Should Vegans Supplement Calcium?
If a diet contains adequate amounts of calcium from appropriate food sources, the person eating that diet shouldn’t need calcium supplements.
However, if someone regularly struggles to meet intake targets, a small calcium supplement may be considered to help fill the gap.
Do not start taking supplements or making any changes to your diet without first consulting with your primary healthcare provider.
It’s not recommended to solely meet calcium needs from supplements alone.
A low-dose calcium supplement is typically about 200 – 500 mg per day.
As with many nutrients, more is not always better (and may actually be harmful). There’s an upper limit for calcium intake. For adults age 19-50, the upper limit is 2500 mg/ day and for adults age 50+, the upper limit is 2000 mg/day 2.
This upper limit includes calcium intake from foods and supplements combined.
An upper limit means there is known risk of harm if calcium intake regularly exceeds these amounts. One study found calcium intakes over 1400 mg/day to pose potential harm 23.
Vegan Recipes High in Calcium
Most recipes that are very high in calcium use calcium-set tofu or calcium-fortified plant-based milk. There are recipes with a good amount of calcium that don’t feature these ingredients, but the highest calcium recipes tend to.
Here’s a list of my favorite high calcium vegan recipes for different meals through the day!
- Kale slaw (104 mg) with Marinated baked tofu (338 mg)
- Greek salad with tofu feta (365 mg)
- Fresh spring rolls (267 mg)
- Vegan quiche Lorraine (270 mg)
- Vegan chicken parmesan (524 mg)
- Red curry (494 mg)
- Sushi bowls (396 mg)
- General tso tofu (346 mg)
- Chow mein (413 mg)
Other (Dessert, Snack, Side Dish, Appetizer)
- Gingerbread loaf (185 mg)
- Cauliflower gratin (261 mg)
- Vegan cheese scones (225 mg)
- Buffalo tofu nuggets (353 mg)
- Feta cheese (367 mg)
- Tofu bacon bits (114 mg)
Summary: Vegan Calcium
Calcium is an essential mineral that can be hard to get enough of as a vegan.
To maintain a balanced diet, choose high calcium foods throughout the day and include lots of lower calcium foods too. Supplements may be an option for those who typically struggle to get enough calcium, but consult a doctor before starting any new supplement.
Meeting calcium needs from foods first is the best approach wherever possible.
While important, calcium is only one factor for good bone health. Also consider other diet and lifestyle factors to protect bone health and decrease fracture risk.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
- Dietary reference intakes for calcium and vitamin D
- Dietary reference intakes (Health Canada)
- Dietary protein and bone: A new approach to an old question
- Protein intake, calcium balance and health consequences
- Dietary protein intake and bone health: A systematic review and meta-analysis
- The impact of dietary protein on calcium absorption and kinetic measures of bone turnover in women
- Dietary protein and skeletal health: A review of recent human research
- Dietary protein and calcium interact to influence calcium retention: A controlled feeding study
- Osteoporosis: Pathophysiology and therapeutic options
- Osteoporosis: Current concepts
- Enhanced bone metabolism in vegetarians – the role of vitamin B12 deficiency
- Bone turnover and bone mineral density are independently related to selenium status in healthy euthyroid postmenopausal women
- The effect of vitamin A on fracture risk: A meta-analysis of cohort studies
- The relationship between vitamin A and risk of fracture: Meta-analysis of prospective studies
- Is zinc and important trace element on bone-related diseases and complications? A meta-analysis and systematic review from serum level, dietary intake, and supplementation aspects
- Vitamin K intake and the risk of fractures: A meta-analysis
- Bone turnover, calcium homeostasis, and vitamin D status in Danish vegans
- Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: Results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study
- Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content
- Canadian nutrient file
- Safety of calcium supplements
- Calcium supplements and colorectal cancer
- Long term calcium intake and rates of all cause and cardiovascular mortality: Community based prospective longitudinal study
This reference list is not intended to be comprehensive.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.