How many times have you heard that you need to drink milk for strong bones? Although your body needs calcium, there are better and healthier sources of calcium without the harmful effects of dairy foods. Marketing promoting milk and its “higher” calcium content is seriously misleading. The truth is, you can get enough calcium on a vegetarian diet by eating calcium-rich foods.
How much calcium do I need?
Your calcium needs depend on your age and gender, says Stacy Hassing, RDN, LD, co-founder of The Real Food Dietitians and co-author of Real food table. The average adult needs about 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day.
However, for women over 50 and men over 71, it reaches 1,200 milligrams per day. Remember one point? “Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb calcium, which is why some foods such as orange juice, milk and some breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” she says.
Despite the constant promotion of milk for its vitamin D content, it is not natural. Cow’s milk is all vitamin D fortified, as it is with many plant-based milks.
Calcium health benefits
One of the best-known benefits of calcium 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 need calcium to function properly,” says Hassing.
No doubt, maintaining healthy bone strength is important. Yes, it can help us prevent broken and broken bones in accidents, but it’s not just falls that can damage our bones. Osteoporosis and osteopenia (early onset of osteoporosis) cause bone weakness and fragility.
The disease occurs in older adults because people lose bone mass as they age (starting in their thirties), but the first three decades of your life are your chance to build a strong foundation to prevent osteoporosis.
About 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 certainly helps.
Can you get calcium without milk?
Whole foods contain calcium in abundance, but some significantly more than others. It is true that some animal products contain significant amounts of calcium, including cow’s milk, yogurt, sardines, and canned salmon with bones. However, many plant-based foods are also high in calcium.
” assures Dr. Robert Graham, co-founder of Fresh Made and Chief Health Officer of Performance Kitchen in New York City.” You can get all the calcium you need from vegetarian or vegan foods
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What’s more, the calcium found in many plant-based foods, such as dark leafy green vegetables, is more bioavailable than the calcium found in milk. The body absorbs about 33 percent of the total calcium from dairy products, but 62 percent of the calcium in broccoli is absorbed during digestion.
Other high-calcium plant-based foods include tofu, fortified nut milk, beans, kale, tahini, sweet potatoes, watercress, okra, chia seeds, and almonds, says Graham. You can also find many calcium-fortified orange juices and cereals in supermarkets.
6 Vegan Sources of Calcium
Although the list of plant foods containing calcium is long, hassing provides some of the best sources for vegetarians.
1 Nuts and seeds
When deciding between nut butters, choose nuts to get the most calcium. Although many nuts and seeds contain moderate amounts of calcium, almonds top out at 75 mg per 30-gram serving (about 20 nuts).
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 get calcium into 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 a boost of antioxidants, fiber and calcium to any Buddha bowl. We love swapping out a morning bowl of oats for this berry and almond amaranth porridge.
White beans (navy beans), kidney beans, and chickpeas are calcium powerhouses of legumes. Navy beans top the charts at 132 milligrams of calcium per one-cup serving, followed by kidney beans and chickpeas with 93 and 99 milligrams, respectively. Use all three in a deliciously hearty combination of vegan chili.
4 Minimally processed soy
Tofu, tempeh and edamame are all great sources of vegan calcium.
Just one three-ounce serving of tofu clocks in at 10-percent of the daily recommended amount of calcium, while tempeh provides about 6-percent of what you need (78 milligrams per 2.5-ounce serving). One cup of edamame provides about 9-percent of the daily recommended amount.
Soy milk is also a solid alternative. Not only does it naturally contain calcium, but many are fortified with one-third of your daily calcium requirement (which is the same as cow’s milk).
5 Blackstrap molasses
We wouldn’t recommend eating a spoonful of molasses to meet your daily calcium needs, but this sticky substance can be included in small amounts in a tasty meal medley.
Try baking up a batch of Almond Muhammara Dip or this addictive Pecan-Walnut Cinnamon Granola. Just one tablespoon of the stuff contains 200 milligrams of calcium—about 20 percent of most adults’ daily needs!
6 Dark leafy greens
There are countless reasons to eat your greens—calcium may be among them. A modest 120 grams of broccoli (a little over a cup) provides 112 milligrams of calcium, and typically uncooked okra contains the same amount at 77 milligrams.
Other dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and bok choy also contain some calcium, though not as much as these two options.
What about vegan calcium supplements?
Blood tests show that you need to supplement if your calcium levels are low. Yet because the standard American diet is 65-percent processed foods, Graham generally recommends supplementation for most Americans, especially women over 50. “Calcium is best absorbed when you take 500 milligrams or less at a time,” he adds. Current recommendations call for 1000 mg to 2000 mg in divided doses, ideally taken with vitamin D.
The only way to tell if you’re chronically low in calcium is with a blood test, Hassing says. Symptoms that you may be low in calcium include muscle cramps, brittle nails, hair that breaks easily, poor circulation that causes tingling and numbness in your fingers and toes, and an irregular heartbeat.
If you are concerned that your levels are low, talk to your doctor about getting a blood test. For most vegetarians, Graham recommends eating calcium-rich foods and/or taking calcium supplements to get all you need.