How to Get Calcium on a Vegan Diet
We've all been taught to you need to drink milk to get your calcium and build strong, healthy bones.
This piece of nutritional dogma probably predates the bible.
Back in elementary school I remember we had these big milk dispenser machines that said "Drink at least 2 big glasses of milk per day to grow tall and build strong bones". Nice marketing there dairy industry, targeting kids.
Being a good boy I drank my daily fill every day and every year until I finally decided to go vegan.
According to what theory predicts going vegan and eliminating dairy products should doom youir bones to wither and decay.
So how are you supposed to get your calcium on a plant-based diet? Is drinking milk really an insurance against fractures and weak bones? Are there any other nutrients that support strong and healthy bones (hint a plant-based diet might provide an awful lot of these helpful nutrients)
Calcium and a vegan diet
Calcium is an essential mineral primarily associated with supporting the function and structure of our skeleton. More than 99% of the calcium in the body is stored in the bones and teeth.
A lesser known attribute of calcium is that the 1% of total body calcium that isn't incorporated into our bones serves other important functions. It's required for vascular contraction and vasodilation, muscle function, nerve transmission, intracellular signaling and hormonal secretion.
Despite their many other flaws dairy products have one redeeming quality: calcium.
Due to the elimination of this calcium-rich food group - there are concerns if you can achieve an adequate intake on a vegan diet.
A calcium deficiency can result in osteoporosis and negative health implications such as lower bone mineral density and a higher risk of fractures.
Yet when looking at the available data this doesn't show up.
Vegetarians, and especially vegans, as a group have lower bone mineral density. However this association between eating plant-based and lower BMD is clinically insignificant.
Furthermore it is only vegans not eating adequate amounts of calcium that are at greater risk for fracture.
One interesting study showed no difference in bone mineral density comparing lifelong vegans, in this case Buddhist nuns with an average age of 62, with omnivorous women the same age. This in spite of the fact that the people eating a mixed diet got about twice as much calcium from their diet.
But, but... milk is the holy grail of bone health!
Nope, not really.
The truth of the matter is that drinking milk be the holy grail we've thought for building strong bones.
All of those glasses of milk you diligently drank as a teenager might have been completely useless for preventing bone fractures. One study showed that milk consumption during teenage years was not associated with a lower risk of hip fracture in older adults.
Another rather large meta-analysis, 9 studies with more than 250.000 participants, came to a similiar conclusion that there was no overall association between milk consumption and risk of hip fracture.
More alarmingly an observational study found that high milk intake was linked with higher mortality (!) as well as an increased risk of fracture incidence in women.
Due to the flaws associated with observational studies one should not be too quick to jump to absolute conclusions. However this certainly does not shine favorable light on the milk-drinking-causes-strong-bones-and-makes-you-very-healthy-overall dogma.
Relying on milk as a source of calcium is a bad idea for many reasons. Nutrients does not come alone, but in packaged deals.
Dairy products also carries a great deal of pain and suffering for the cows involved.
Calcium from plants on the other hand comes in a packaged deal along with healthy vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Which one would you want to chose?
Plants - the answer to bone health
A whole foods plant-based diet might prove itself more useful than the traditional prescription of milk and dairy.
Zooming out from the perpetuated theory of milk=calcium=healthy-bones-and-very-healthy, there are plenty other nutrients besides calcium that also contribute towards bone health.
Now calcium is also present in many different vegetables. Further down in this article I'll provide some awesome sources of plant-derived calcium.
Provides tons of beneficial nutrients
Legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables provides a variety important nutrients involved in bone metabolism such as magnesium, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
These nutrients are found in abundance in plant foods and can all help to support good bone health. A greater intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with greater BMD and lower risk of osteoporosis.
Low acid load
Another aspect of a vegan diet that helps support healthy bones and can help protect against osteoporosis is low acid load.
A low acid load is correlated with a higher BMD and lower bone resportion (bone tissue getting broken down) - a result of the alkalizing effect by eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables.
One study showed that an increase in intake of fruits and vegetables, from 5 to 9 servings per day, resulted in an urine PH increase of 0.68 pH units.
Another positive effect of a plant-based diet is the phytic acid found in legumes and whole grains. Often demonized falsely by low-carb and paleo gurus as an 'anti-nutrient'
This effect is so significant that one study suggested that phytate consumption should be considered an osteoporosis risk factor.
Phytate work in the same way as a class of drugs called Bisphosphonates in preventing bone loss mass. With the additional benefit that you don't have to rely on drugs but on beans, lentil and grains (16)
If you want to read up on more of the amazing health benefits associated with phytate click here for an article on the subject.
Getting calcium on a vegan diet
The RDA established by the Food & Nutrition Board for calcium is 1000 mg for adult men and women.
However other government panels have produced differing numbers for recommended calcium intake.
For instance the UK reference nutrient intake (RNI) for calcium for adults is 700 mg. This number may be a more accurate target as evidence suggests calcium requirement for men and women is lower than previously estimated. One review of the subject predicted neutral calcium balance to be at an intake of 741 mg/d.
Dark green leafy vegetables is the group of plant foods richest in calcium - spinach, broccoli, rocket, kale, chard etc.
Another great source of calcium is tofu - due to the involvement of calcium sulfate in the manufacturing. Fortified foods such as plant milk also contributes to calcium requirements.
You'll be suprised how many plant foods contain plenty of calcium. Legumes, nuts and seeds and other whole grains are all good sources of vegan calcium
If you plug a days worth of eating into a nutrient tracking tool such as CRON-O-Meter, you'll discover that virtually all plant foods have some amount of calcium.
Below is a list detailing the best vegan sources of calcium.
A balanced whole food plant-based diet, especially if you get in your daily servings of leafy green vegetables, should easily hi the 700 mg mark. It will also provide tons of other protective nutrients involved in supporting and promoting healthy bones.
Calcium is not exclusive to dairy products and a whole food plant based diet can provide all that is required. Simply make sure to eat a varied diet along with your dark green leafy vegetables which are packed full with calcium.
Such a diet in conjunction with exercise will make your skeleton as bulletproof as possible!
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