Updated: Sep 22, 2019
You probably already know that strong bones are important for health – especially for those of us who like to lift heavy weights and who spend a lot of time exercising! Exercise itself will help with bone strength and health, but another important factor is calcium. While calcium has been hyped up by the dairy industry as the only important factor in maintaining healthy bones and avoiding ‘osteoporosis (hint – there are factors beyond calcium involved in bone health) it is an important mineral for other reasons too, including functions in the brain, heart and blood. Due in a large part to the propaganda of the dairy industry, many people believe that it is not possible to get enough calcium on a plant based diet – which is simply not true!
What’s the big deal about calcium?
I know you are probably asking this question – it is something that I didn’t really understand before I started learning about nutrition. I knew that it plays an important role in our bodies, but didn’t really know much else. Before becoming vegan and really getting into health and fitness, I wasn’t all that interested in knowing what is important for our bodies and why. Now, though, I want to be as well informed as possible so that I know I am making the right choices for my body – and I’m sure you want to do the same (for your own bodies of course, I’m sure you’re not interested in mine!).
A large proportion of our bone mineral density is built while we are teenagers, and it reaches it’s peak in our late 20s. After about the age of 35, natural loss of bone density starts to occur (it happens particularly quickly in post-menopausal women), so it is extremely important to ensure that: (a) we build up our bone density before that happens; and (b) once we reach our mid-thirties, the natural loss happens at a safe rate, which will help to mitigate the risk of developing osteoporosis. One way we can slow down bone loss and maintain bone density by including plenty of quality calcium in our diet (also by reducing alcohol intake and avoiding smoking).
How much calcium do I actually need?
The average adult needs about 1000mg per day of calcium. Because a large proportion of our bone density is built while we are teenagers, teens need more calcium than adults (around 1300mg). Women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 also need more calcium (again, around 1300mg). This might sound like a lot, especially when we are led to believe that the only reliable source of calcium is dairy, but never fear! There are plenty of plant based sources of calcium which can easily be incorporated as part of a balanced plant based diet (and, added bonus, they are super healthy without the nasty side effects of dairy foods!).
Plant based sources of calcium
Some examples of good plant based sources of calcium include:
· Fortified plant milks
· Tofu (if set in calcium)
· Blackstrap molasses
· Chia seeds
· Flax seeds
· Sesame seeds
· Sunflower seeds
· Dried fruits
One thing to bear in mind when planning your meals to include calcium rich foods is to not rely too heavily on foods that are high in oxalates. “What are oxalates?” I hear you ask! Oxalates are a natural substance in many foods. They bind to calcium during digestion in the stomach and intestines and are then pooped out. This can prevent much of the calcium in oxalate rich foods from being absorbed by our bodies. Now, I’m not saying that you should avoid oxalate rich foods (unless you have a specific sensitivity) as many oxalate rich foods are extremely good for you (spinach is a good example of a food that is high in both calcium and oxalates), but you should not rely on these foods to meet your calcium requirements. That being said, the recommended daily intake above accounts for the fact that not all dietary calcium will be absorbed by our bodies, so don’t stress too much about this – just bear it in mind!
Examples of oxalate rich foods include:
· Beetroot greens
· Cocoa powder
Other factors to consider to enhance calcium absorption
· Make sure you get enough vitamin D, as it is super important for maximising calcium absorption.
· Try to eat calcium rich vegetables quickly after you have bought them. Once they have been sitting for a few days the calcium content starts to drop off.
· Avoid smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
· Boil high oxalate vegetables (such as spinach and beetroot greens) to reduce the oxalate content.
· If you’re worried about the amount of calcium you are getting, consider taking a supplement.