Vegan Calcium – Explained

vegan-calcium

Our ‘Explained’ series of posts aims to simplify the information surrounding vegan nutrition. This article talks about calcium.

Key Points

  • Vegans don’t focus enough on getting adequate amounts of calcium
  • Vegans should focus on incorporating collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, edamame and broccoli into their diet
  • Eat more foods fortified with Calcium such as cereals, plant milks and soy products
  • Increase intake of Vitamin D which supports increased calcium absorption. Spend more time in the sun if possible and consume fortified products such as plant milks and orange juice.
  • Avoid eating too many foods high in oxalates which block calcium absorption. Examples include spinach, beets, bran flakes, french fries and nut butters.
  • Consider incorporating fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut in your diet for Vitamin K2 which helps boost bone health.
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle habits such as frequent exercise to maintain a healthy body weight and avoid excessive smoking and alcohol drinking.

Calcium Confusion

Whilst most vegans will admit they think calcium is important for them, there is often confusion about exactly where the best sources of vegan calcium come from. Most vegans believe consuming huge amounts of dark leafy greens is enough. 

Calcium is far more complex than most make it out to be. There are other dietary and lifestyle factors to consider.

Is Calcium Important for Vegans? 

Yes, but not just vegans. Everybody. And most people aren’t getting enough. 

Osteoporosis is the most common issue discussed. This is a silent disease. It’s not until much later in life, mainly your 50’s and 60’s, that you start to feel the symptoms of Osteoporosis. Back pain and bone fractures to the spine, hip and waist being the most common. Therefore, it’s dangerous to simply believe you are getting enough calcium. You need to make sure you are getting adequate amounts in your diet. 

Osteoporosis is a silent disease affecting bone strength

It’s not just about bone strength either. Calcium is also important for your heart, muscles and nerves to function properly

Some people assume vegans just naturally struggle to get enough calcium because we don’t drink cow’s milk. It’s actually because we don’t put enough focus on getting enough calcium from the right places.

Vegan Calcium Issues

Eating the Wrong Vegetables

Most vegans when I ask them about where they get their calcium answer ‘dark leafy vegetables’ which usually means spinach or kale. Many vegans believe if they eat enough of these they will get their adequate amount of calcium. This is wrong. 

The amount of calcium within these vegetables is low and the absorption rate is also poor. For example, spinach has an absorption rate of just 5% and is particularly high in oxalates which actually blocks the absorption of calcium in the body! 

Instead, the vegetables you should be focused on eating are:

  • Collard Greens (cooked)
  • Turnip Greens
  • Mustard Greens
  • Bok choy
  • Edamame
  • Broccoli

Fear of Fortified Foods

The best sources of calcium for vegans come in the form of fortified food products such as non-dairy milk, tofu, cereals and orange juice.

However, some vegans tend to stay clear of fortified foods in a bid to prove that their plant-based diet only requires ‘natural’ plant foods. This is ridiculous.

Fortified foods play an essential role is ALL people’s diets whether you are a vegan or meat eater. They ensure we are getting adequate nutrients which are hard to come by in our everyday foods.

Fortified foods are important for calcium and vitamin D. Try consuming more:

  • Non-Dairy Milk — Soy, Almond and Rice Milk (aim for 30–45% calcium)
  • Orange Juice
  • Breakfast Cereal
Aim to buy plant-milks with 30-45% calcium content

Lack of Vitamin D 

Getting adequate amounts of calcium is also not enough. You need to make sure you are getting the right amount of Vitamin D. Low intake of Vitamin D reduces the absorption of calcium. It also works hand-in-hand with calcium to maintain healthy bones mass. Therefore you should spend at least 15 minutes each day basking in the sun. No sun where you live? Try consuming more:

  • Soy milk
  • Cereals
  • Orange Juice
Many cereals are fortified with vitamin D

No Knowledge of Vitamin K2

You may have heard of Vitamin K that is found in dark leafy vegetables, this is known as Vitamin K1. But, have you heard about Vitamin K2?

Vitamin K2 is usually found in animal and fermented foods. Recent research suggests it plays a vital role in blood clotting, calcium metabolism and heart health. 

It’s thought that it promotes calcification of bones. Basically, it keeps your bones hard and strong. Controlled human studies have shown Vitamin K2 generally improves bone health but Vitamin K1 does not. Other studies conducted showed a 52% less chance of artery calcification in those who got the right amount of K2. 

But should vegans be worried? 

More research is required but most studies suggest that there is no real danger to vegans but we should try eating more of the following fermented foods:

  • Kimchi (make sure it is shrimp paste free!)
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh

Some researchers believe fermented foods are the key to a healthier gut and to a longer life.

Kimchi is a source of Vitamin K2, it tastes great too!

Healthy Lifestyle Habits

Good bone health goes beyond the food you eat. Alongside eating a healthy and well-balanced diet there are lifestyle habits that help promote calcium absorption and bone health.

Stay Active — In particular do frequent weight bearing exercises such as walking, hiking, tennis, yoga and even just taking the stairs.

Supplementation—If you unable to be active or getting sunshine is not practical you could opt for a good calcium supplement.

Maintain Healthy Body Weight – Try to keep an optimal weight for your height and age.

Avoid Smoking and Heavy Drinking – Both of these poor habits interfere with the balance of calcium in the body and should be avoided.

 Bottom Line

  • Eat adequate amounts of foods high in calcium
  • Avoid foods high in oxalates
  • Increase Vitamin D and Vitamin K intake
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol drinking

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