Time and time again I have been met with a mixture of disbelief and incredulity on behalf of my fellow non-vegan companions on stating that one needn’t consume dairy to meet their daily calcium requirements; my mother in particular has come to envisage a particularly grim future for her youngest child, one comprised of of bone density loss, brittle nails and dental cavities. This deeply ingrained contention is driven by the popular belief that dairy is the only source from which individuals can meet their calcium requirements. The dairy industry has done a wonderful job at instilling in the public the notion that milk and cheese are essential for bone and teeth health, the words becoming synonymous with calcium rather than being perceived as merely one food source from which we can meet our calcium RDA.
Further, much of the scientific literature which links dairy to bone health and greater vitamin D absorption has been funded by the dairy industry, thus placing doubt over the legitimacy of such research, while the food pyramid dedicates an entire section to dairy alone, thus implying that it is an essential nutrient which we are obligated to include in our daily diet in order to achieve optimum health and vitality. Industries fail to inform the public of the myriad of health dangers associated with dairy products, such as its links with various cancers, asthma, heart disease, acne, a greater likelihood of fractures and various types of inflammation, in addition to the fact that the majority of individuals cannot physically digest dairy. Yes, the vast majority of society is, in fact, lactose intolerant.
Another issue relates to the acidity of dairy, a property that promotes the leaching of calcium from the bones as an attempt to neutralize the body pH, in turn leading to the subsequent elimination of these calcium stores through the urine. It should also be noted that while calcium is important, research finds that unlike nutrients such as vitamin D and magnesium which are transient or in other words in constant need of a top up, the body builds up stores of calcium over time. Thus, the aim should be to maintain those stores through the consumption of nutrients such as vitamin K, and the two aforementioned nutrients rather than becoming overly fixated on calcium alone.
Moreover, in order to debunk the myths surrounding calcium I have compiled the following list of plant-based calcium sources so the next time anyone attempts to preach the importance of milk for bone health, you can inform them of the many food sources that trump milk in their calcium content as well as many other nutrients.
|Recommended Daily Allowance ***|
|0–6 months*||200 mg||200 mg|
|7–12 months*||260 mg||260 mg|
|1–3 years||700 mg||700 mg|
|4–8 years||1,000 mg||1,000 mg|
|9–13 years||1,300 mg||1,300 mg|
|14–18 years||1,300 mg||1,300 mg||1,300 mg||1,300 mg|
|19–50 years||1,000 mg||1,000 mg||1,000 mg||1,000 mg|
|51–70 years||1,000 mg||1,200 mg|
|71+ years||1,200 mg||1,200 mg|
|Blackstrap molasses||2 Tbsp||400|
|Collard greens, cooked||90grams||170|
|Tofu, processed with calcium sulfate||4 ounces||200-420|
|Soy or Rice milk, commercial, calcium-fortified, plain||200 mls||240|
|Commercial soy yogurt, plain||100 grams||120|
|Turnip greens, cooked||150 grams||249|
|Tofu, processed with nigari||4 ounces||130-400|
|Kale, cooked||70 grams||179|
|Bok choy, cooked||170grams||158|
|Mustard greens, cooked||60 grams||152|
|Okra, cooked||100 grams||135|
|Navy beans, cooked||1 cup||126|
|Almond butter||2 Tbsp||111|
|Almonds, whole||35 grams||94|
|Broccoli, cooked||75 grams||62|
Foods that Inhibit absorption of Calcium
- Sodium: Sodium increases the amount of calcium that is excreted in the urine, so if eating foods high in salt, more calcium should be consumed.
- Excess protein: The body uses excess protein for energy. However, as protein is burned for energy, it produces sulfate. Sulfate increases the amount of calcium excreted in the urine, which decreases the amount of calcium in the body. Excess protein creates excess sulfate.
- Phytic Acid: In whole plant foods, minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc are attached to phosphorous and are enclosed in substances called phytates. These compounds inhibit the body’s ability to absorb the minerals in the GI tract, thus leading to less bioavailability of the nutrients. In order to rectify this issue it is recommended that one soaks and sprouts their nuts, seeds and grains as this aids the breakdown of the phytic acid.
- Oxalic Acid: Found in some foods and beverages, most notably spinach, chard, berries, chocolate, and tea, oxalate binds with calcium and increases the loss of calcium through fecal excretion. For example, even though sweet potatoes contain calcium, not all of it is absorbed because of the oxalic acid (oxalate) that is also in them.
Tips for minimizing problems from oxalate:
- Boil high-oxalate leafy greens and discard the water.
- Meet the RDA for calcium. Eat high-calcium foods or take calcium with meals; calcium citrate if you have a history of calcium-oxalate stones.
- Drink plenty of fluid.
- Do not include large amounts of high-oxalate vegetables in your green smoothies.
- Do not take large amounts of vitamin C.
- Phosphorous: Also known as phosphoric acid and phosphate, phosphorous, which is in carbonated beverages and many processed foods, can interfere with calcium absorption.
- Insoluble fiber: This type of fiber, such as the kind in wheat bran, reduces calcium absorption.
- Alcohol intake: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can interfere with the calcium balance by inhibiting the enzymes that convert inactive vitamin D to active vitamin D.
- Caffeine: Excessive intake of caffeine (300 mg-400 mg) can increase urinary excretion as well as fecal excretion. (One cup [8 fl oz] of brewed coffee contains about 137 mg of caffeine.)
- Smoking, stress, and lack of exercise: These lifestyle factors contribute to the body not being able to absorb calcium as efficiently.
Nutrients that Aid the Absorption of Calcium
- Vitamin D- Daily Recommendations: 600 IU
Approximately 50% of Irish people meet their daily vitamin D requirements which is quite a startling statistic.
Supplements are the best way to ensure that everyone (vegans and non-vegans alike) meet their daily vitamin D requirements in places such as Ireland where sunlight is scarce.
The main source from which we obtain vitamin D is the sun, but wearing SPF (present in many cosmetic products as well as sun screens) can prevent the absorption as well as overcast skies. In addition, effective absorption of sunshine vitamin D only tends to occur between the months of March and October in an Irish context.
Plant-based sources of vitamin D include fortified foods (some plant milks, orange juices and yogurts) and mushrooms exposed to sunlight. For more information see:
Meeting Vitamin D Needs on a Vegan Diet-One Green Planet.org
- Vitamins E, C, B & K
Vitamin K is of particular importance as it drags calcium molecules into the bone from the blood stream, thus preventing it from calcifying on the bone or blocking arteries.
- Magnesium-Many individuals lack this mineral as the soil does not harvest it in such generous quantities as it once did due to exhaustive farming, destructive fertilizers and subsequent leaching of nutrients from the land. Magnesium is essential for the conversion of vitamin D into its active form.
Brazil nuts, dark chocolate(one square contains about 90 milligrams), almonds and pumpkin seeds.
Please see: Magnesium: A Key to Calcium Absorption By Nan Kathryn Fuchs, Ph.D
Any weight bearing exercise such as walking, dancing, jogging, weight training (particularly squating), yoga, hiking, jump roping etc can help to increase bone density.
One study found that as little as one minute of running a day can significantly improved women’s bone health (4% better than those who completed less than one minute)Another highly cited systematic review which assesses the health that physical activity during childhood found that “although not undisputed…as little as 10 minutes of moderate to-high impact activities performed on as little as 2 or 3 days of the week can have a modest effect on bone mineral density when combined with more general weight bearing aerobic activities that are also beneficial for cardiovascular risk factors and obesity prevention (e.g., jogging, play, etc.) (Jansen & LeBlanc, 10-11)
- Gut Micro-biome: Emerging research into the health benefits of having a balanced gut micro-biome suggests that having good gut health can potentially enhance calcium absorption although more research is needed. Consuming fermented foods such as water kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, plant yoghurts with bio-cultures and supplementing can help restore balance in the gut. Sugar feeds the bad good bacteria so a low sugar diet is advised.
Please see the following paper: New Frontiers in Fibers: Innovative and Emerging Research on The Gut Microbiome and Bone Health
Some Other Helpful Links