Eating Vegan: Calcium

eating vegan

Kale is an excellent plant-based dietary source of calcium.
Kale is an excellent plant-based dietary source of calcium.

When folks find out that you don’t eat dairy, they often want to know where you get your calcium. It’s very easy for vegans to get sufficient calcium, if you’re eating a balanced diet. In fact, it might be easier for vegans to retain the calcium we need for healthy bones.

As Ryan, one of our readers, recently pointed out:

The calcium issue is a little more complicated than just considering dietary consumption. Maintaining adequate levels of calcium in the body is a two-step process: 1) Consuming sufficient calcium, and 2) Keeping the calcium in your body!

So very true. Certain foods block calcium absorption, and you need to make sure you’re getting adequate vitamin D, so that your body can properly absorb it. You can get vitamin D by spending a few minutes each day in the sun without sunscreen, from fortified foods, or via a vitamin D supplement. Just be careful: vitamin D is fat soluble, so it is possible to take too much. You don’t want to be getting more than 1000 IU each day.

There’s also a question about whether we really need 1000mg/day of calcium for healthy bones. Yes, our bodies need calcium, but as we’ve seen the dairy lobby plays an influential role in the U.S.’s nutritional guidelines, and we may not need as much calcium as we think.

black beans

Vegan Calcium Rich Foods

Cruciferous vegetables, like kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are great sources of calcium, as are dark, leafy greens. Spinach gets a lot of love as a calcium source, but it’s actually not a great one. While it contains a good amount of calcium, it’s not easy for your body to absorb it.

The mighty bean is a calcium source that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Beans are also a good source of magnesium, which helps your body absorb calcium.

Just like dairy products, you can find juices and other plant-based foods that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. This is a great way to make up the difference if you’re not eating enough greens and beans to get the calcium you need. Many non-vegans take calcium supplements, and if you are worried about getting enough, there’s no shame in picking up a supplement to make up the difference. Just take a peek at the back of the package to make sure it’s from a plant-based source.

There are also several foods and lifestyle factors that can prevent your body from absorbing the calcium you’re eating, which can make a difference in bone health.

The animal protein in dairy can actually prevent your body from absorbing calcium.
The animal protein in dairy can actually prevent your body from absorbing calcium.

Barriers to Calcium Absorption

There are several factors that can thwart your efforts to get sufficient calcium:

  • Certain foods. Animal protein, caffiene, and salt can block your body’s calcium absorption or leach calcium from your bones.
  • Cigarettes. Smoking inhibits calcium absorption.
  • Lack of exercise. Weight bearing exercise, like walking, running, and weight training, helps your bones retain calcium.
  • Insufficient vitamin D and magnesium. Vitamin D and magnesium both help our bodies properly absorb calcium. You can get vitamin D through sun exposure and magnesium from healthy foods like beans.

Dairy products contain high amounts of animal protein, so while they offer high amounts of calcium, dairy is actually not the best source of this nutrient.

Have you guys had to answer the calcium question? How did you handle it? I think it’s really important when folks ask us about veganism that we assume they’re genuinely curious and not trying to poke holes in our lifestyle choices. That’s tough to remember sometimes, but I think it can make a big difference in how those conversations go.

Image Credits:
Kale Salad. Creative Commons photo by ilovemypit
Black Beans. Creative Commons photo by kaptainkobold
Woman Drinking Milk. Creative Commons photo by ToriMBC

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4 thoughts on “Eating Vegan: Calcium”

  1. Nice article, Becky. A ton of useful info nicely and succinctly packaged.

    I had heard that about spinach and milk as a kid.. But never see this info anywhere. Nice that you backed that up and the info is out there.

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