How many times have you heard that you need to drink milk for strong bones? While your body does need calcium, there are better—and healthier—sources of calcium that come without the deleterious effects of dairy. The marketing promoting milk and its “superior” calcium content is severely misleading. “You can get all of the calcium you need from a vegetarian or vegan diet,” assures Dr. Robert Graham, Chief Health Officer for Performance Kitchen and co-founder of FRESH Med in New York City. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you’re on the right track.
How much calcium do I need?
Your calcium needs depend on your age and sex, says Stacie Hassing, R.D.N., L.D., co-founder of The Real Food Dietitians and co-author of The Real Food Table. The average adult needs 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day. Yet for women over the age of 50 and men over 71, that jumps to 1,200mg per day. One point to remember? “Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium to take place in the body, which is why some foods like orange juice, milk, and some breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” she says. Despite the incessant promotion of milk for its vitamin D content, this isn’t natural. All the vitamin D in cow’s milk is fortified, just as it is with many plant-based milks.
Benefits of calcium
One of calcium’s best-known benefits is maintaining and building strong bones and teeth, but it’s important for many other functions in your body. “Your heart, muscles, nerves, and circulatory system all require calcium to function properly,” Hassing says.
No doubt, maintaining healthy bone strength is important. Yes, it can help prevent breaks when we have an accident, but it’s not just falls that can cause damage to our bones. Osteoporosis and osteopenia (the early onset of osteoporosis) cause the weakening and brittling of bones. The disease tends to occur in older adults as humans lose bone mass as they age (starting in your thirties), but those first three decades of your life are opportunities to build a strong foundation to prevent osteoporosis. Approximately 10 million Americans over the age of 50 suffer from the disease, but another 43 million have been diagnosed with osteopenia or low bone mass. While other lifestyle choices can be preventative (such as regular weight-bearing exercise), getting enough calcium surely helps.
What foods contain calcium?
A plethora of whole foods contain calcium, but some are significantly higher than others. It’s true that there is a significant amount of calcium in some animal products including cow’s milk, yogurt, sardines, and canned salmon with bones. However, an abundance of plant-based foods are also high in calcium. What’s more, the calcium found in many plant-based foods such as dark leafy greens is more bioavailable than the calcium found in milk. The body absorbs approximately 33 percent of the total calcium in dairy, but a whopping 62 percent of the calcium in broccoli is absorbed upon digestion. Other high calcium plant-based foods include tofu, fortified nut milks, beans, kale, tahini, sweet potatoes, watercress, okra, chia seeds, and almonds, Graham says. You can also find many calcium-fortified orange juices and cereals at the supermarket.
Best vegan sources of calcium
While the list of calcium-containing plant foods is long, Hassing offers some of the best sources for vegans:
1 Nuts and seeds
When deciding between nut butters, opt for the almond to get the most calcium. While many nuts and seeds contain modest amounts of calcium, almonds reign supreme at 75 milligrams per 30-gram serving (about 20 almonds). Hazelnuts come in at a decent 56 milligrams per serving, and while slightly lower at 42 milligrams per serving, tahini is a versatile and delicious way to up the calcium intake of any meal.
Swap out the quinoa with some amaranth from time to time. With 80 grams of calcium per one-quarter cup (dry), this ancient grain adds both antioxidants, fiber, and a boost of calcium to any Buddha bowl. We also love to swap out a morning bowl of oats for this Berry & Almond Amaranth Porridge.
White beans (navy beans), kidney beans, and chickpeas are the calcium powerhouses of legumes. Navy beans top the charts at 132 milligrams of calcium per one-cup serving, and kidney beans and chickpeas follow with 93 and 99 milligrams, respectively. Use all three in a deliciously hearty combination of a vegan chili.
4 Minimally processed soy
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all stellar sources of vegan calcium. Just one three-ounce serving of tofu clocks in 10 percent of the daily recommended amount of calcium, tempeh supplies about 6 percent of what you need (78 milligrams per 2.5-ounce serving), and one cup of edamame provides about 9 percent of the daily recommended amount. Soy milk is also a solid option. Not only does it naturally contain calcium, many are fortified with up to one-third of the calcium you need per day (that’s the same as cow’s milk).
5 Blackstrap molasses
We wouldn’t recommend consuming a spoonful of molasses to fulfill your daily calcium needs, but this sticky substance can be incorporated in small amounts into a medley of delicious dishes. Try whipping up a batch of nutty muhammara dip or baking off a batch of this addictive Nutty Pecan-Walnut Cinnamon Granola. Just one tablespoon of the stuff contains 200 milligrams of calcium—20 percent of what most adults need each day!
6 Dark leafy greens
There are countless reasons to up your greens intake—calcium just happens to be among them. A humble 120 grams of broccoli (a little over a cup) delivers 112 milligrams of calcium, and the typically underutilized okra contains 77 milligrams for the same amount. Other dark leafies such as kale, collards, and bok choy also contain some calcium, though not quite as much as these two options.
How do you know if you’re getting enough calcium?
The only way to tell if you’re chronically low in calcium is through a blood test, Hassing says. Signs that you might be low include muscle cramping, brittle nails, easy hair breakage, poor circulation that causes tingling and numbness in your fingers and toes, and an irregular heartbeat. If you’re concerned that your levels are low, talk with your doctor about getting a blood test. For most vegans, Graham recommends eating foods that are high in calcium and/or taking a calcium supplement to get all that you need.
Do you need a calcium supplement?
You may need to supplement if a blood test shows that you’re low in calcium. Yet because the standard American diet is 65-percent processed foods, Graham generally recommends supplementation for most Americans, especially women over the age of 50. “Calcium is absorbed best when you take 500mg or less at one time,” he says, adding that current recommendations call for 1000mg to 2000mg in divided doses, ideally taken with vitamin D.
For more on vegan health and nutrition, read:
Study Finds Going Vegan Adds 10 Years to Your Life
How to Get Enough Iron on a Vegan Diet
I Tried Plant-Based Whole30 and Here’s What Happened