Plant-Based Diets + Calcium
Growing up I would always love driving by those, “Got Milk” billboards to see which new famous face was sporting that signature milk mustache. You can only imagine my shock and sadness when after several failed attempts to achieve that same distinguished look, my mom broke the truth to me. The mustache was a fake. The discovery didn’t stop me from enjoying my daily cup or more of milk, and I continued on thinking, as did my mother, that milk was the way to build strong bones.
It wasn’t until I did research of my own that I discovered milk isn’t needed to build strong bones, keep you healthy, or even evolutionary speaking, part of an adult’s diet. I have to admit I was shocked. I had milk everyday of my life, and was a hardcore cheese addict. In fact, some of my favorite memories involved watching television at night with my dad, where we would share a cheese plate, and my favorite sandwich? Cheese and spicy mustard.
The End of my Dairy Addiction
The final blow to my dairy obsession was while I was in college for an Animal Sciences degree. I volunteered at a dairy farm for a few days, and needless to say, I was distraught. The calves reminded me of my own dogs, playful, sweet, and adorable. For those 3 days, when I would get home I would just cry, knowing what was in store for the little male calves, which would become veal, and for the little females, that would share the same fate as their mothers. This caused me to find delicious alternatives and even experimented with making my own. However, the calcium issue always gnawed at me: was I hurting myself by removing the dairy? Spoiler alert, the answer was no.
The Calcium Basics
This mineral is such a concern because the majority of us know that calcium is needed to build strong bones, which can prevent osteoporosis and fracture risk later in life.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and works to provide the rigid structure and hardness to our bones and teeth. Calcium also plays other roles, such as in muscle relaxation, nerve transmission, and even in regards to coagulation. And is an important mineral to support heart health. In fact, calcium blood levels are so vital that our bodies will pull calcium from our bones to ensure we have enough in our blood.
The concern of getting enough concern is a valid one, however you don’t need to be concerned about abstaining from dairy products and not meeting your calcium needs. In fact, countries that consume the most dairy products tend to have higher rates of osteoporotic bone fractures. Go figure.
Plant-Based Calcium Sources
So then, what are some options for your plant-based calcium needs? For starters you want to include lots of low-oxalic and phytic acids foods. Oxalates and phytates are compounds that occur naturally in food, and can bind with minerals like calcium. So, the higher the content of these two compounds, the less calcium you will absorb. Which is why options like broccoli, kale, bok choy, mustard and turnip greens are great choices. Also calcium set tofu, fortified juices and nut milks, as well as soaked almonds and figs all provide calcium to the diet.
Here is how much calcium can be found in several plant foods according to the USDA Food Composition Database:
How Much Calcium Do We Need
The amounts of this mineral adults should be aiming for daily are below:
1,000 mg/ day- women under 50 years old + men under 70 years old
1,200 mg/ day – women over 50 years old + men over 70 years old
It’s important to note that the recommendation for calcium increases earlier in women than men because as women approach menopause the reduction in estrogen can cause bones to thin faster.
Ways to Improve Calcium Levels
Remember Vitamin D
In the body, vitamin D and calcium work synergistically. Vitamin D actually helps us to absorb more calcium, and when eating a calcium-rich meal including a source of vitamin D will just further ensure you’re on your way to hitting your calcium goals. Personally, I take my vitamin D supplement with lunch, where I am sure to include a variety of my calcium-rich foods.
Be mindful of the salt
Salt has the ability to increase the amount of calcium we lose through our urine. Being mindful of our salt intake is a key to keeping our calcium levels healthy.
Lower the caffeine
Caffeine, like salt, can also cause us to release calcium through our urine. However, if we include a calcium source with our caffeine, like a calcium-fortified almond milk to your morning coffee, you will be covered!
Although I always prefer a foods-first approach, those new to plant-based eating might be worried about getting enough calcium. For those, supplementation can definitely help. It’s important to note that in the body, calcium works with a variety of minerals, so a high single dose of any one mineral might throw your mineral balance out of whack. Also, if you introduce too much at one time, your body will just remove the excess. So taking two smaller doses daily is more beneficial than one large dose, you’ll absorb more!
Soaking + Sprouting
As I mentioned earlier, some foods contain oxalates and phytates which can bind to the calcium present. Simply soaking your nuts, beans, and seeds can lower the content of these two compounds, as they will be released in the soaking water. Just be sure to discard the water, and you have just increased the calcium content of your meal!
Do you keep the dairy in your diet because of the calcium fear? What foods do you include, or will you start including, to hit your calcium intake? Let us know in the comments below!