Calcium: The Nutrients Vegans Need

Dr. Matthew NagraArticles, Calcium, Dairy, Plant-based Diet, Tips

Image of vegan-friendly foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, and soy products arranged on table

A nutritionally balanced diet is crucial to our overall health. A plant-based diet centered around vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can provide plenty of fibre, antioxidants, protein, vitamins, minerals, and more. It can also be excellent for controlling cholesterol levels, weight management, and decreasing risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, a nutrient of focus for vegans that doesn’t get enough attention is calcium, which is the most abundant mineral in the human body. This micronutrient plays an important role in our bodies, from increasing and maintaining a healthy bone mineral density to being involved in muscle contractions, nerve transmission, blood clotting, and more. Therefore, calcium should not be overlooked.1

Whether you’re just getting into plant-based eating, a seasoned vegan veteran, or are just concerned about your bone health, here’s what you need to know about calcium:

Are You Consuming Enough Calcium?

As you already know, calcium is critical for bone health and plays other important roles in the body as well, so getting enough is important. But how much do you really need? In the United States (US)1 and Canada2, the daily calcium requirement is 1,000 milligrams (mg) for adults under the age of 50, and 1,200 mg for females who are 50 plus. These numbers can be even higher for children and teens, reaching up to 1,300 mg of calcium daily for individuals between the ages of 9 to 18. However, these recommendations decrease significantly outside the US, with the United Kingdom (UK)3 suggesting only 700 mg per day for adults.

Looking at the disparity between these numbers, it’s possible that North American recommendations are higher than they need to be, and in fact, when we look at research on calcium intake and risk of bone fractures, that risk tends to increase when calcium intake falls below 700 mg per day, suggesting the UK recommendations may be adequate4 . Therefore, if you can’t reach that 1,000 mg target, it doesn’t necessarily mean your intake is inadequate. With that said, there are certain groups – vegans in particular – who may be failing to hit even the lower recommendations.

Do Vegans Need More Calcium?

A new meta-analysis of the available studies looking at calcium intake in vegans and vegetarians found that vegans consumed significantly less calcium than both vegetarians and omnivores.3 In fact, the lower intake in vegans remained consistent amongst most subgroups including various ages, sexes, study design, and more. While this doesn’t mean vegans are necessarily consuming inadequate amounts of calcium (it could be that the omnivores and vegetarians are just consuming far more than is necessary), it does further emphasize the need to focus on this nutrient.

Why? Because when we look at the average intakes of calcium amongst vegans, they’re oftentimes falling short of the lower UK-based recommendation of 700mg/day for adults. Suggesting that many of them may be falling well short, especially in Asia and amongst females according to this data.

How Can This Be Addressed?

Since dairy products tend to be an important calcium source for vegetarians and omnivores, it makes sense to replace dairy products with other calcium-rich foods. The simplest solution would be to consume a cup or two of calcium-fortified plant-based milk daily to supplement the rest of the diet. Kind of like a calcium insurance policy. Depending on the type and brand, calcium-fortified plant-based milks are loaded with calcium and can even contain even more than cow’s milk.

Unfortunately, most plant-based yogurts and cheeses are not typically fortified and don’t pack the same calcium-punch as the milks. Of course, calcium is also present in other plant foods, but aside from calcium-set tofu, most foods won’t compare.

So, if your main priority is upping your calcium, adding fortified plant-based milk is a great place to start. If you’re looking for additional vegan-friendly foods that are healthy and also provide some calcium, here are some additional options. 5, 6

1. Soy foods

So foods such as tempeh, tofu, and natto are great sources of calcium. For instance, firm tofu made with calcium sulfate contains 253mg of calcium per ½ cup and soft tofu made with calcium sulfate contains 138mg for that same amount.

2. Dark leafy greens

When cooked, dark leafy greens can pack in some calcium. For example, ½ cup of boiled spinach provides 123mg, 1 cup of cooked kale contains 94mg, and ½ cup of boiled turnip greens holds 99mg of calcium. It’s important to note that while high in calcium, certain foods such as spinach, are also considered high-oxalate foods. This could decrease calcium absorption in the body compared to low- or medium-oxalate foods.

3. Raw vegetables

Raw veggies such as Bok choy and broccoli contain 74mg and 21mg of calcium per serving respectively.

4. Legumes

Legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, and navy beans provide approximately 23mg, 60mg, and 62mg of calcium for a ½ serving respectively.

5. Orange juice

Orange juice hat is calcium fortified provides 349mg per 1 cup serving. A sweet and calcium dense option!

6. Nuts

Nuts such as almonds and Brazil nuts contain healthy fats as well as calcium. For example, 1 cup of Brazil nuts contains 212mg while 1 cup of almonds packs in 246mg of calcium. Don’t feel like eating a cup of almonds? Opt for almond butter instead and get 60mg of calcium per tablespoon (tbsp).

7. Seeds

Seeds and their butters are also a great calcium option. Tahini butter, which is made from sesame seeds, carries 64mg of calcium per tbsp while 1 ounce of chia seeds provides roughly 75mg of calcium for that same serving size.

8. Grains

Grains are not typically good sources of calcium. However, amaranth and teff (which are two varieties of gluten-free, ancient grains), are decent sources of calcium. 1 cup of amaranth grains contains 115mg with teff carrying a little bit more at 123mg of calcium per cup.

9. Blackstrap molasses

While high in sugar, blackstrap molasses contains a whopping 179 mg of calcium per tablespoon.

Need help with your calcium-rich, plant-based diet?

Calcium is definitely a nutrient that deserves more focus. While there are many plant-based foods containing calcium, the most efficient way for vegans to meet the daily recommendations is through fortified foods. Specifically calcium-fortified plant-based milks. However, if these aren’t a suitable option for any reason, it may be worth discussing supplementation with your healthcare provider or a plant-based doctor such as myself.