Tell someone you are vegan, and the first question they’ll ask you is ‘Where do you get your protein from?’ I bet you’re tired of it, so you can find a witty answer you can use right here.
The very next thing they’ll do is ask whether you don’t even eat dairy and milk, claiming now this is way too extreme! If they start talking about how healthy milk is, send them this article, or study it carefully to be prepared with some answers.
Now, once you are done with this, let’s get serious on the most important questions regarding calcium, and how vegans can make sure they get and absorb enough of it for continued bone health.
Calcium: The Complete Lowdown
What is calcium?
A: “Calcium is a mineral that the body needs for numerous functions, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, blood clotting, the transmission of nerve inpulses, and the regulation of the heart’s rhythm. Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in the human body is stored in the bones and teeth. The remaining 1 percent is found in the blood and other tissues.”
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
How does the body acquire calcium?
A: “The body gets calcium it needs in two ways. One is by eating foods that contain calcium. Good sources include dairy products, which have the highest concentration per serving of highly absorbable calcium, and dark leafy greens or dried beans, which have varying amounts of absorbable calcium.
“The other way the body gets calcium is by pulling it from bones. This happens when the blood levels of calcium drop too low, usually when it’s been a while since having eaten a meal containing calcium. Ideally, the calcium that is ‘borrowed’ from the bones will be replaced at a later point. But, this doesn’t always happen. Most important, this payback can’t be accomplished simply by eating more calcium.”
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
How much calcium do I need?
A: According to the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health, the amount needed varies by age group but not by sex. The chart below contains their recommendations:
(mg per day)
|0 to 6 months||210|
|7 to 12 months||270|
|1 to 3 years||500|
|4 to 8 years||800|
|9 to 13 years||1300|
|14 to 18 years||1300|
|19 to 50 years||1000|
|5 1+ years||1200|
Source: Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health
Dr. John McDougall takes a different view. He writes,
“Studies have shown that an intake of 150 to 200 mg of calcium daily is adequate to meet the needs of most people, even during pregnancy and lactation. And in fact, most of the world’s population injests 300 to 500 mg of calcium each day. Calcium is so efficiently absorbed by the human intestine and so sufficient in diets of mankind, that calcium deficiency of dietary origin is unknown in human beings.
“Only in those places where calcium and protein are eaten in relatively high quantities does a deficiency of bone calcium exist at such epidemic rates, due to an excess of animal protein.”
Source: The McDougall Program for a Healthy Heart, 256
How can I recognize if I am deficient in calcium?
A: Dr. Holly Roberts says, “If you have a calcium deficiency, you may develop twitching, nerve sensitivity, brittle nails, insomnia, depression, numbness, and heart palpitations. Painful muscle cramps in the calves may occur often during pregnancy, particularly in women who are deficient in calcium.”
Source: Your Vegetarian Pregnancy, 111
Will consuming dairy products protect me from developing osteoporosis?
Dr. Fuhrman says, “Hip fractures and osteoporosis are more frequent in populations in which dairy products are commonly consumed and calcium intakes are commonly high. For example, American women drink thirty to thirty-two times as much cow’s milk as the New Guineans, yet suffer forty-seven times as many broken hips. A multicountry analysis of hip-fracture incidence and dairy-product consumption found that milk consumption has a high statistical association with higher rates of hip fractures.”
Source: Eat to Live, 84
Dr. T. Colin Cambell says: “Americans consume more cow’s milk and its products per person than most populations in the world. So Americans should have wonderfully strong bones, right? Unfortunately not. A recent study showed that American women aged fifty and older have one of the highest rates of hip fractures in the world. The only countries with higher rates are in Europe and in the South Pacific (Australia and New Zealand) where they consume even more milk than the United States.”
Source: The China Study, 204
What triggers the body to pull calcium from the bones?
A: Dr. Fuhrman provides the following list:
|Dietary Factors That Induce Calcium Loss in the Urine|
|drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, thyroid hormone|
|vitamin A supplements|
Source: Eat To Live, 86
Dr. Neal Barnard provides his list:
- Animal protein
- Excess phosporus (sodas, animal products)
- Sodium (animal products, canned or snack foods)
- Sedentary lifestyle
Source: Eat Right, Live Longer, 167
Davis and Melina say, “When the kidneys excrete excess sodium, 23 to 26 mg of calcium is lost along with every gram of sodium excreted.”
Source: Becoming Vegan, 94
Why is a vegan diet better for bone health?
In looking at calcium loss, Dr. Joel Fuhrman states, “Published data clearly links increased urinary excretion of calcium with animal-protein intake but not with vegetable-protein intake. Plant foods, though some may be high in protein, are not acid-forming. Animal-protein ingestion results in a heavy acid load in the blood. This sets off a series of reactions whereby calcium is released from the bones to help neutralize the acid. The sulfur-based amino acids in animal products contribute significantly to urinary acid production and the resulting calcium loss. The Nurses Health Study found that women who consumed 95 grams of protein a day had a 22% greater risk of forearm fracture than those who consumed less than 68 grams.”
Source: Eat To Live, 86
Dr. Dean Ornish says, “The real cause of osteoporosis in this country is not insufficient calcium intake, it’s excessive excretion of calcium in the urine. Even calcium supplementation is often not enough to make up for the increased calcium excretion. Vegetarians, in contrast, excrete much less calcium, and this is why they have very low rates of osteoporosis even though their dietary intake of calcium is lower than those on a meat-eating diet.”
Source: Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, 301
Q: What are good food sources for calcium?
A: “Dairy products are not the healthiest source,” says Dr. Neal Barnard. “They do contain calcium, but only about 30% of it is absorbed. The remaining 70% never makes it past the intestinal wall and is simply excreted with the feces. Dairy products have many other undesirable features, including animal proteins that contribute to some cases of arthritis and respiratory problems, lactose sugar that is linked to cataracts, frequent traces of antibiotics, and other problems that lead many doctors to suggest that we avoid them and get calcium from healthier sources.
“The healthiest calcium sources are ‘greens and beans.’ Green leafy vegetables are loaded with calcium. One cup of broccoli has 178 milligrams of calcium. What’s more, the calcium in broccoli and most other green leafy vegetables is more absorbable than the calcium in milk. An exception is spinach, which has a form of calcium that is not well absorbed.”
What role does Vitamin D play in relation to calcium?
A: In Becoming Vegan the authors write, “Vitamin D is a major player in a team of nutrients and hormones that keep blood calcium at optimal levels and support bone health during growth and throughout life. It stimulates the absorption of the bone-building minerals calcium and phosphorus from the intestine and helps regulate the amount of calcium in bone. It is important for proper functioning of cells throughout the body (in muscle, nerves, and glands) that depend on calcium. If more blood calcium is needed, vitamin D is able to act in three places:
to reduce urinary calcium losses via the kidneys;
to absorb calcium from food more efficiently in the digestive tract;
to draw calcium from our bones, which serve as a storehouse of calcium.
Source: Becoming Vegan, 133-134
5 Whole Foods With More Calcium Than A Cup Of Milk
3 cups (cooked) of Great Northern Beans (360 mg) 418 cal
You can easily eat these in a stew, salad or put together delicious bean burgers.
2 Cups Amaranth Cooked (552 mg) 504 cal
Again, extremely easy to eat over 2 meals, especially if you try this super satisfying and delicious Mexican Stew.
2 cups of Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage) (316 mg) 18 cal
As an increasingly popular member of the cruciferous vegetable family, bok choy is being recognized more and more often for its standout nutrient richness. This member of the cabbage family is one of the highest nutritionally ranked vegetables and it provides good, very good, or excellent amounts of 21 nutrients. Unlike some other members of the cabbage family, these ranked nutrients include omega-3s, as well as the antioxidant mineral zinc. More on its nutritional values here.
See a delicious recipe here.
3 Cups of Dandelion Greens (Chopped) (309 mg) 75 cal
Dandelion greens are the most nutritious leafy vegetable that you can buy. Except for being high in calcium, support digestion, reduce swelling and inflammation, and treat viruses, jaundice, edema, gout, eczema and acne. Recent studies indicate that their root combats cancer.
1 ½ Cups Dried Figs (360 mg) 418 cal
Figs offer a much better source of soluble fiber, with 4-5 grams per fruit versus dates which have around 2-3 grams. Figs are also linked to good digestive health, help to relieve constipation, and contribute to good heart health. Figs win in the calorie department too. Figs have 15 percent less calories than dates, which means you can eat double the amount that you can of dates and still satisfy your sweet tooth!
Soak dried figs for 30 minutes before use so they’ll plump up nicely and puree in a jiffy! The soaking water can also be used in recipes since it’s rich in nutrients and delightful dark purple color, indicating the high antioxidant content.
Although some would argue you need to eat large quantities of these foods in order to deliver the calcium intake, you can see that each of these can easily be consumed over the course of one or two meals.
They have low to medium calorie density, and at the same time they are very rich in nutrients, adding up to fuel your body with plant goodness!