Meeting calcium requirements on a plant-based diet

Mar 9, 2022

Calcium is a nutrient that many people fear is lacking in a vegan diet, as dairy is often peddled as the best source. However, there are many plant-based sources of calcium, and as long as a selection of these are included daily, calcium needs can easily be met on a vegan diet.

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and plays an essential role in building strong bones and teeth. It is also involved in regulating cell metabolism, enabling muscles to relax, and plays a role in blood clotting after injury. The recommended intakes for the general adult population aged 19-50 is 700mg daily, however, there are certain medical conditions that mean requirements are increased to 1000mg. These include those with inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac, or malabsorption conditions, those with osteoporosis, and also post-menopausal women and men over 55 years old. These needs can still easily be met by consuming a balanced and varied vegan diet.

Calcium is abundant in low oxalate, green, leafy vegetables. These include kale, broccoli, bok choy, watercress and rocket. However, spinach, beet greens and swiss chard are high in oxalates, meaning that calcium absorption is poor. Fortified plant milks and calcium-set tofu are excellent sources, with absorption rates being equal to cow’s milk. Other useful sources include tahini, chia seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, legumes, oranges, almonds and almond butter, blackstrap molasses, and dark chocolate. As almonds contain phytates, the body will absorb around 20% of the calcium. However, if they are soaked overnight (in water at room temperature) before eating, the absorption increases.

In order to meet daily calcium needs, it is helpful to aim for a minimum of 400mls of fortified plant milk daily. This provides on average 480mg of calcium. A fortified plant-based yoghurt will provide a further 120mg of calcium, and an 80g portion of calcium-set tofu, approximately 320mg. This will provide a total of 920mg of calcium, showing how straightforward it is to meet calcium requirements, even for those with higher needs. A useful tip for a calcium-rich snack is swapping 2tbsp of peanut butter for almond butter, as this increases calcium by 73mg.

It is important to avoid high intakes of salt, caffeine and alcohol, and avoid smoking, as these are known as calcium thieves. It is also crucial to ensure adequate intakes of vitamin D, as this helps our bodies to absorb calcium. During the summer months, the sun’s rays enable our bodies to make vitamin D, but during the winter months, and for some groups all year around, a daily vitamin D supplement is recommended. Finally, aim to include strength training in your weekly exercise regime. This can include body weight exercises such as squats and press-ups, running, aerobics classes, or playing tennis.

You can find more information from these factsheets on Vitamin D and bone health.

 

By Lisa Simon, Registered Dietitian

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