Calcium for omnivores is widely accessible via yogurts, cheese, milk, whey protein and other fortified foods. As a result, most non-vegans reach their daily recommended calcium intake with moderate ease. But what about vegans?
Are our calcium levels on par with non-vegans? How important is calcium consumption? Do we need fortified foods for optimal bone health?
Certain vegan documentaries convinced me that osteoporosis is a condition associated with dairy consumption. But is that really the case?
Before I give you a list with several of the best calcium sources for vegans, let’s answer some of the questions above. Once you realize the importance of calcium for a vegan diet, you will be much more prepared for the next time you head down to the grocery store.
Calcium & Bone Health
Calcium (alongside vitamin D) are the most important nutrients for optimal bone health.
Besides exposing yourself to UV rays or ingesting a supplement to obtain vitamin D, you must also eat dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, legumes, and fortified foods to eliminate the concern of a potential calcium deficiency.
That is why leaning on evidence-based information to create a balanced and well-planned diet is critical because it gives you knowledge that enables you to fill in the gaps.
A good example of this is KNOWING that if you consume too much spinach, swiss chard, or beet greens, your calcium may take a dip. Even though those ingredients are rich in calcium, their elevated content of oxalate prevents your intestine from properly absorbing calcium.
Sometimes I wonder if I, as a vegan, need to be especially wary about nutrition… or if it’s just my overly dramatic side tingling. Well, let’s find out.
Why Calcium Is Critical For Vegans
I used to believe vegans were on par or superior to non-vegans when it came to calcium consumption. Yet it turns out vegans are at a higher risk for bone fracture.
How is that possible?
Because vegans don’t eat dairy products, without fortified foods and supplements it’s harder to meet the recommended calcium intake. The recommended intake is 1000 mg per day, but most vegans eat between 400 and 600 mg.
According to different studies, vegans have a lower bone mineral density (measure for osteoporosis). But if you look deeper into the research, you realize that is not a result of the type of diet, but due to poor nutrient intake.
Throughout my life, dairy has always played a major role. Meaning, I ate too many calcium-fortified ingredients, so bone-health wasn’t an issue. However, when I was sixteen I was close to reaching an anemic state. That was a result of me having an imbalanced diet.
So regardless of the diet you follow, you can always run into nutrient imbalances.
How Much Calcium Should I Aim For?
To be frank, I can’t give you a specific value.
But since it’s a bit of a stretch to aim for 1000 mg of calcium every day, we should at least focus on eating a fully balanced plant-based diet.
Nevertheless, I want to bring you some awareness by speaking about the EPIC-Oxford, a study looking at vegan bone fracture rates.
This study was conducted between 1993-2007 and included 57,000 participants, of which 1000 were vegan and nearly 10,000 were ovo-lacto vegetarians. The results showed that vegans had higher fracture rates resulting from having a lower calcium intake.
However, vegans consuming at least 525 mg of calcium per day had the same fracture rates as other groups. The study didn’t give the average calcium intake for vegans, but it was possible to calculate that at a minimum, the average calcium intake was 640 mg.
A separate analysis of the same study revealed that calcium intake was related to an increase in fracture rates in women (regardless of diet), but not in men.
This does not give you a specific value to aim for, but it sort of shows that bone health is a product of calcium intake. In other words, as long as you eat a varied diet, and don’t forget to eat calcium-rich ingredients, you shouldn’t have to worry about hip fractures or conditions like osteoporosis.
Things That Prevent Calcium Absorption
As much as I love spinach like Popeye, it might as well be my undoing. Don’t misunderstand when I say this, as I’m not saying you can’t eat spinach. What I’m saying is that due to its high content of oxalate, it interferes with your calcium absorption.
Spinach, swiss chards, and beet greens may have high-calcium content, but they are also high in oxalate. Fortunately, there are foods high in calcium but low in oxalate, which are the ones you should consume to achieve healthy calcium levels.
This being said — it is suggested that the high-oxalate levels in spinach and other foods can be “reduced” (or even eliminated) by having them boiled.
Does Anything Help With Calcium Absorption?
Vitamin D is a very important nutrient if you want to properly absorb calcium. In fact, the body cannot absorb calcium without some vitamin D. When fitness aficionados say the food is the fuel to our body, they’re very much correct.
Actually, it’s much more than just eating food. You must know WHAT to eat in order to sustain every single mechanism in your body.
A diet high in calcium and vitamin D, but low in oxalate — wouldn’t be complete without other ‘secondary vitamins (C, E, K, magnesium, and boron) to assist in calcium absorption and increasing bone mass.
Complementing your diet with exercise will keep your bones strong and healthy.
Extra tip: Do you drink calcium-fortified beverages? If you do, make sure you shake the beverage to ensure the calcium has not settled to the bottom of the carton.
Are Calcium Supplements Viable?
Evidence suggests that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium tend to have an increased risk of bone fractures. Perhaps you should consider taking a daily supplement in the event you can’t reach 525 mg a day.
Personally, I believe everyone should be able to reach (and even surpass) that value by eating plant-based foods, as well as fortified beverages and cereals.
However, if that is not the case, consider speaking with a plant-based health expert about taking a calcium supplement.
Extra tip: Don’t take a calcium supplement during or soon before/after meals, otherwise it will inhibit iron absorption.
Problems With Calcium Supplements
Calcium supplements may seem like a viable solution, but at the same time, if not consumed wisely it may lead to certain health conditions.
- Too much calcium: Taking calcium might be risky in the sense it may lead you to take too much calcium. Too much calcium may lead to hypercalcemia, above normal-level calcium in the blood. This condition may cause you to feel nausea, vomiting, confusion, and other neurological symptoms.
- Potential diseases: Excessive calcium in your system may lead to a higher risk of developing kidney and cardiovascular diseases, as well as prostate cancer.
- Constipation: A calcium supplement by itself may not lead to constipation, but if taken in conjunction with other supplements or medication, it may lead to other problems such as constipation.
Before taking in any calcium supplement, you should get professional health advice.
Why Some Vegans Don’t Get Enough Calcium
One factor that might be preventing some vegans from getting enough calcium is the circulation of some misconceptions about calcium and bone health.
One misconception is that a vegan diet has some type of special protection against bone loss because our diets are more alkaline than the standard American diet. Yes, some older studies suggest that acid-forming diets can lead to bone resorption, but according to new research, that is not the case.
In fact, it suggests that acidity (or the alkalinity) of a diet has nothing to do with bone health. Eating an alkaline diet does not result in stronger bones.
Don’t Skip Protein
Some vegans believe that protein is mainly acidic and bad for bone health. However, the opposite is actually the case. According to research, protein seems to have a protective effect on the bone matrix. (source 1, 2, 3, 4)
Therefore, don’t skip your protein, as it ensures you have healthy and strong bones.
Not Knowing What The Good Calcium Sources Are
I’ve mentioned this in this blog post before, and a lot of times, you’re just eating food sources that impair one another.
You’ve probably heard about how caffeine inhibits iron absorption. Well, It so happens that calcium also has an arch-nemesis: Oxalate.
What Is Oxalate?
Oxalic acid (or Oxalate) is an organic compound found in most plants, but your body is also able to produce oxalate on its own.
However, there’s an added risk in consuming foods that are high in oxalate. One of the main concerns is that it can hinder the absorption of minerals.
One of my favorite greens was spinach — and unfortunately, spinach has a high content of oxalate, which prevents a lot of the calcium from being absorbed by the body. In addition, eating fiber together with oxalate may further hinder the absorption of nutrients.
A vegan diet is fiber-rich, so you should try and cut out some of the high-oxalate ingredients if you can. These ingredients include:
|Spinach (raw)||30 g||344 mg|
|Rhubarb (boiled)||120 g||371 mg|
|Beets (boiled)||85 g||41 mg|
|Swiss Chard||88 g||290 - 375 mg|
|Cocoa Powder||5 g||34 mg|
|Beet Greens (raw)||38 g||231 mg|
|Almonds||35 g||151 mg|
Don’t Avoid Fortified Foods. There are many other ingredients that contain oxalate. Ingredients such as beans, cashews, hazelnuts, okra, potato, sweet potato… but they don’t have a degree of oxalate that would significantly impair you calcium absorption.
Non-dairy milk, orange juice, cereals, and tofu may not sound as appealing due to the fact they’re not “natural” ingredients — but they actually play an important role in every diet.
Most people get Vitamin D through fortified ingredients — it’s present in cow’s milk, as well as plant-based milk. Most cereals are also fortified with folate, which helps protect against neural tube defects.
Fortified foods are an extra shield that helps our body avoid deficiencies and the respective health conditions caused by those deficiencies.
They’re not absolutely necessary if you want to be healthy, but it makes the nutrient acquisition process much easier. This is especially important as you’re aging, given how your body slowly loses the ability to adequately absorb nutrients.
The Best Vegan Sources Of Calcium.
Without further ado, let’s start looking at the best plant-based sources of calcium. I shall be listing the different ingredients/foods in descending order of calcium density, so you can see the sources that should almost always be included in your daily meal routines.
Also, keep in mind that these numbers may vary, especially if we’re speaking in terms of having different milk or cereal brands, and also depending on how you cook the source.
Plant-Based Milk (Soy, Almond, Rice, Oat, Coconut)
Plant-based milk provides you with one of the easiest and most absorbable calcium sources in the planet. For example, I’ve reached out to my fridge to check how much calcium the generic rice milk contains and 240 ml (1 cup) is enough to provide me with roughy more than 30% of the RDI. 15% for every 100 ml.
On a similar, the also generic soy milk also seems to provide the 30% for one cup of milk. The difference between the rice milk and soy milk is that the soy milk contains more minerals such as riboflavin (vitamin B2) and cobalamin (vitamin B12).
Typically, plant-based milk contains added sugars, so my suggestion would be to always choose the unsweetened version for a healthier alternative.
Fortified Orange Juice
Another highly dense source of calcium is fortified orange juice.
For instance, if we search for well known fortified orange juice brands (like Tropicana), we can easily verify that 240 ml (or one cup of fortified orange juice) gives you 25% of the RDA.
Simply Orange, another brand of orange juice, provides you with 35% of the RDA with the same amount of orange juice. As you can see, values change between brands, so check for those that provide with q more calcium-dense beverage.
Collard Greens (Cooked)
Collard greens are a wonderful example of a calcium-rich food with low oxalate content.
In fact, one cup of collard greens can provide you with 270 mg of calcium, which is 27% of the RDA. You combine that with pinto beans (5% RDA) and you have 32% of the RDA.
You’re never only eating collard greens, as you’re always pairing it with another ingredient that may contain some percentage of calcium.
Fortified Breakfast Cereals
After checking different boxes of cereals, I’ve realized the calcium density oscillates even more on this type of product.
In fact, you even have cereals without calcium, but if you can, do a search for cereals with some quantity of calcium. Since you typically eat cereals with milk, the calcium values will gel together and provide you with 30-35% of the RDA.
Here are brands of cereals containing calcium:
- Multi-Grain Cheerios (8% RDA)
- Cheerios Cinnamon Oat (8% RDA)
- Kashi Organic Cereals (2% RDA)
- Quaker Oatmeal Cereals (2% RDA)
- Rice Chex Cereals (10% RDA)
Perhaps you can find cereals with an ever bigger RDA, but don’t forget to search for cereals that are fully plant-based.
Turnip Greens (Steamed or Boiled)
Whether you steam or boil them, turnip greens give you a healthy 200 mg of calcium, which accounts for 20% of the RDA. In addition to calcium, turnip greens also contain vitamin K, which helps with calcium absorption.
One cup of turnip greens contains 138 mcg of vitamin K, which is more than the recommended amount you need in a day.
Turnip greens also contribute to healthier skin and hair due to their high vitamin A content. They’re also a great source of vitamin C and iron, which are essential nutrients to prevent or fight anemia.
Mustard Greens (Steamed or Boiled)
Another vegetable you should keep yourself stacked with is mustard greens. Aside from being rich in calcium, it also has a healthy content of vitamins K, A, and C.
Upon eating a cup of mustard greens you’re getting 170 mg of calcium, which represents 17% of the RDA. These cruciferous vegetables are packed with fibers, vegetables, minerals, and protective antioxidants, making them one of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
Research suggests mustard greens are filled with properties that can protect your body from several health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and even specific cancers.
Bok Choy (Steamed or Boiled)
One cup of bok choy contains 160 mg of calcium, which equals 16% of the RDA.
First cultivated in China, Bok Choy is now available to the whole world. As it should since studies show that bok choy helps in the prevention of lung, prostate and colon cancer.
Because it contains folate, it helps in the production and repairing of DNA, which may prevent cancer cells from forming due to mutations in the DNA. Unlike other fruits and vegetables, bok choy contains selenium.
Selenium helps detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body, and it also reduces inflammation and tumor growth rates.
You can sauté bok choy with garlic and ginger, stuff it in a dumpling, and even toss it on a salad. There’s no reason to keep it out of your diet.
Tempeh, just like seitan and tofu, is considered a meat substitute and a great source of protein for both vegans and vegetarians alike.
But what most people might not know is that tempeh is a great source of calcium. Four ounces of calcium contains 120 mg of calcium, which is 12% of the RDA.
But that’s not all.
Tempeh is also a great source of iron, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and prebiotics. Prebiotics may help promote digestive health and reduce inflammation.
Tahini is an exotic and less known specialty— especially if you ask most omnivores.
But for people that go vegan or vegetarian, you start to get into hummus and salads (a bit more) and learn that tahini can be used in many creative ways.
Tahini is essentially created from sesame seeds. Its nutty and creamy texture makes it useful for different things like making burgers, dressings, desserts and more.
Two tablespoons of Tahini have 120 mg of calcium, accounting for 12% of the RDA. That’s not all, though. Tahini is also a great source of phosphorus and manganese, both of which contribute significantly for bone health.
In addition, Tahini is also a wonderful source of anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats that are linked to a decreased risk of chronic disease.
Half a cup of dried figs has 120 mg of calcium, which represents 12% of the RDA. For most people, I’d say dried figs are an acquired taste but they can become very addicting.
Dried figs are mildly sweet and have multiple uses. In fact, they’re what you call a healthy replacement for unhealthy snacks. They’re a great source of vitamins (A, B, C, K), potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and even iron.
If you can’t dry figs on their own, consider adding them to a salad or adding them to chutney for dinner. All in all, a great addition to any diet.
Extra Firm Tofu
Three ounces of extra firm tofu gives you 100-150 mg of calcium, which amounts to 10-15% of the RDA. Apart from being an excellent source of calcium, it is also a viable source of iron and an important source of protein for most vegans and vegetarians.
Tofu also has high levels of isoflavones, which are substances linked to a lower risk of age and lifestyle-related health conditions.
One packet of unsweetened oatmeal is quite convenient (if you’re lazy), and actually makes up for a nutritious breakfast.
Generally, one packet should contain 100 mg of calcium, which makes about 10% of the DRA. This said, you always need to check the label because the value may change from brand to brand. Also, I’d recommend you to choose a version with no added sugars, so that you can start your day as healthily as possible.
Here are some brands of oatmeal that contain calcium:
- Quaker Instant Oatmeal (10% RDA)
- Bob’s Red Mill Oats (2% RDA)
- McCann’s Irish Oatmeal (2% RDA)
- “Better Oats” Oatmeal (6% RDA)
When complemented with milk, oats are an even better source of calcium — and quite frankly, a great source of everything, since it’s a really well-balanced ingredient.
To better summarize this whole post, there are a few things you should always consider when thinking about calcium and bone health.
#1 – Eating Dark, Leafy Greens & Fortified Foods.
This one doesn’t require much explaining, but the goal here is that you eat dark-leafy greens that are high in calcium, but low in oxalate, so that your body can better absorb the calcium.
In addition, you also want to take advantage of the foods fortified with nutrients such as plant-based milk, tofu, orange juice and cereals to give yourself that extra insurance in case you get sloppy with your diet here and there.
#2 – Think Balanced.
Sometimes when we focus on one ingredient too much, we tend to forget that our body also needs other nutrients. So it’s important to have a well-balanced diet in order to ensure every mechanism in your body functions properly.
This being said, calcium and vitamin D are not the sole contributors to positive bone health. Some evidence suggests that antioxidant-rich foods can help to protect the bone matrix, which is especially awesome since plant-based diets are rich in phytonutrients.
Also, as I’ve mentioned in this post, protein also seems to have a protective effect on the bones, so do not leave lentils, quinoa, seitan or any other protein-rich ingredients aside.
#3 – Don’t Forget To Exercise.
According to an article published by the Harvard Medical School, exercise plays a big role in maintaining and improving bone health.
Any and every exercise that goes against gravity (walking, climbing stairs, lifting weights, and more) is important for bone health and the prevention of fractures.
Not only because your muscles and movements become more coordinated, thus preventing you from triggering a fall — but apparently, exercise has a direct effect on the bones.
In fact, stimulating the muscles also forces the bone to become stronger.
A Few Last Words…
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this resource, but at the same time, I hope it has helped you figure out some of the questions or doubts you had before reading it.
Nutrition is a tricky subject since new research is constantly popping up, so what is true today may not so tomorrow. As such, it’s important to have reliable resources on hand.
Like you, I love to read about stuff and it’s crucial to have access to enlightening information that will help me steer me onto a better path. Allow me to share some of the amazing resources I usually count on to give me the most up to date information on vegan nutrition.
Those resources are:
If you want to learn more information on calcium and bone health, those are tremendous resources to visit, given how they’re made available by the finest plant-based health experts.
Thank you for having read this blog post!
Stay vegan, stay you.