Calcium is an important nutrient for vegan diets and requires careful planning and consideration to ensure enough is consumed as a vegan.
- What is Calcium?
- What Does Calcium Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Requirements of Calcium
- Calcium Deficiency
- How to Consume Enough Calcium as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Calcium
- Calcium Supplements for Vegans
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What is Calcium?
Calcium is an essential mineral and is required for many functions in the body. Often calcium intake is associated with drinking cow’s milk. This is one reason calcium intake is a concern for vegans: many people don’t know what other foods (besides cow’s milk) are good sources of this nutrient.
When people transition to a vegan diet and stop drinking cow’s milk, calcium intakes can decrease significantly. Since such large amounts of calcium are required for optimal health, it can become very easy to not consume adequate amounts as a vegan.
What Does Calcium Do in the Body?
Calcium intake seems to be synonymous with bone health. The major role of calcium is to create the structural components of bones and teeth. Throughout life, it’s important to consume adequate amounts of calcium to ensure proper bone health. Keep in mind that there are other factors that determine the health of our bones besides calcium, but calcium is a critical factor.
Most of the calcium in the body is found in bones and teeth (99%). The other 1% is found circulating in the blood. Calcium found in the blood is highly regulated (meaning the body makes sure there isn’t too much/ too little calcium in the blood at any one time).
Calcium in the blood helps muscles contract, allowing the body to move. It also plays a specific and important role in allowing the heart muscle to contract (meaning calcium is essential for the heart to beat and pump blood through the body).
Daily Intake Requirements of Calcium
The current recommended intakes for calcium from Health Canada are: 1
|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|
Traditional (and outdated) nutrition recommendations advise 3 servings of dairy products each day to meet these intakes. There are many sources of calcium besides cow’s milk, and these other sources often have additional health benefits. However, since calcium content of plant-based foods is much lower than that of cow’s milk, it can become a challenge to consume these large amounts of calcium on a vegan diet.
Some vegans question whether they need to meet these recommended intake levels. Current research supports a need for vegans to consume these levels of calcium and until further research is conducted, it’s generally advised for vegans to consume adequate calcium to prevent potential harm to bone health.
It’s also possible to get too much calcium. This doesn’t typically occur through diet alone, but could happen if someone takes a calcium supplement (including multivitamins containing calcium). The upper limit, beyond which adverse effects have been found to occur, is 2500 mg for men under 70 and women under 50 or 2000 mg for men over 70 and women over 50 1.
Since humans have a huge reservoir of calcium available to them (in their bones), acute calcium deficiency isn’t a common concern for the average healthy adult. If blood calcium levels are too low, the body should be able to extract calcium from bones to make up for the deficit and keep essential body functions working properly.
Sometimes, when people are ill, calcium levels in the blood can fall, creating problems. There are other reasons why calcium levels could be low. If you receive a blood test result indicating low calcium levels, speak with your doctor immediately.
Concerns with calcium deficiency tend to be long-term consequences with bone health. If calcium intake from the diet is low, over time the body will continue to break down bone to release calcium. This can lead to a softening of the bones, called osteomalacia and eventually porous bones (bones that aren’t dense or strong but rather have “holes” in them) which is called osteoporosis.
Osteomalacia and osteoporosis don’t happen overnight. They are also not often associated with any early indicator signs and symptoms. Many people aren’t diagnosed with osteoporosis until they break a bone.
This is why it’s important to ensure you regularly meet calcium intake requirements. While you may not notice any physical differences in your day-to-day, you are helping to ensure good bone health long-term.
How to Consume Enough Calcium as a Vegan
When it comes to vegan sources of calcium, there are two things we need to consider – how much calcium is present in the food, and how much of that calcium we actually absorb. How much you can absorb is an important consideration when talking about vegan calcium sources.
The primary factor to consider when discussing vegan calcium absorption is oxalates. Oxalates prevent calcium from being absorbed and can be present in very high amounts in vegan food sources of calcium.
- Fortified plant-based milks
- Calcium set tofu
- Low-oxalate leafy greens
- Calcium fortified juice
If you get in 3 cups of the above foods each day, along with some other calcium-containing foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, sweet potato, figs, oranges, blackstrap molasses, and corn tortillas, you could meet the daily recommended intake of calcium on a vegan diet.
Vegan Food Sources of Calcium
The top 5 vegan food sources of calcium are:
- Fortified plant-based milks: calcium in fortified plant-based milk is absorbed about as well as calcium from cow’s milk, and there is a large quantity per serving. Therefore it’s one of the best sources of vegan calcium. Shake well before serving because calcium settles to the bottom of the container.
- Calcium set tofu: calcium set tofu is another excellent vegan food source of calcium. Check the package to see how much calcium is present per serving as it varies based on how the specific brand of tofu is made. Overall, this calcium is well absorbed at about the same rate of cow’s milk.
- Low-oxalate leafy greens: if you read my article about why it’s important for vegans to eat leafy greens, you know low-oxalate leafy greens provide a great source of vegan calcium and many other important nutrients. Here’s the full list of low-oxalate leafy greens. Calcium from leafy greens is absorbed at varying rates.
- Beans, nuts and seeds (soaked): beans, nuts, and seeds provide smaller amounts of calcium and isn’t absorbed as well as the vegan calcium options above. However, these foods provide a good source of other nutrients and can provide extra vegan calcium to help meet overall daily needs. Soaking beans, nuts and seeds (or sprouting them) can help increase calcium absorption.
- Calcium fortified juices: some juices are fortified with calcium. If you drink juice, purchasing a fortified juice can be a good opportunity to increase your calcium intake. Juice falls last on this list because, while the calcium present is absorbed as well as that from cow’s milk, juice can be high in sugar and it’s probably best to not consume in large quantities. Shake well before serving because calcium settles to the bottom of the container.
Calcium Supplements for Vegans
Vegan calcium supplements are not needed if your vegan diet contains adequate calcium from highly absorbable plant-based sources. However, if someone struggles to meet the daily recommended intake targets for calcium on a vegan diet, a vegan calcium supplement to fill the gap may be helpful.
There’s some concern raised about the safety of calcium supplements 3. Based on this research suggsting possible harm, it’s not recommended to soley rely on supplements to meet your calcium needs. Smaller doses of calcium supplements do not appear to be harmful and could top-up a vegan diet that lacks calcium. Always speak to your doctor before starting any supplements. Never forget there is an upper intake level for most nutrients (including calcium) and more is not always better.
Summary: Calcium for Vegans
Calcium is an essential mineral and is critical for bone health. Vegans need to consume adequate intakes of calcium. There are concerns with vegans consuming enough calcium due to plant-based foods being lower in calcium compared to certain animal foods and problems with absorbing calcium from plant-based foods. Choosing vegan food sources of calcium that are well absorbed, and consuming adequate amounts should help meet calcium needs of vegans. However, if someone does not eat enough of these foods, speak to your doctor about a low-dose calcium supplement to make up the difference. Working with a dietitian is also a great way to ensure long-term health on a vegan diet.
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- Dietary Reference Intakes- Reference Values for Elements
- Calcium: A Vegan Nutrition Primer
- Calcium Part 2: Research
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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