Calcium is a nutrient often discussed in the vegan community.
Since you’ve landed on this page, you might be wondering whether it’s possible to get enough calcium without dairy. And if so, how to meet your calcium needs on a vegan diet.
Some will tell you that eating a well-varied plant-based diet will automatically take care of your calcium needs.
Yet, a large proportion of vegans fail to meet their calcium requirements, with sometimes lasting consequences on their health.
This article will address the most common calcium-related questions and outline practical ways to help you get enough calcium on a vegan diet.
Why is calcium so important
Calcium is a mineral instrumental to the health of your bones.
Around 40% of your bone mass is built during adolescence, and most women reach their peak bone mass in their early thirties (1).
After that, bone mass will gradually diminish at a steady rhythm until you menopause, when hormonal changes can cause it to sharply decline.
Therefore, eating enough calcium throughout childhood and adolescence is instrumental in building strong bones, and getting enough after that is an important factor in helping you maintain them.
In addition to building and maintaining a healthy bone mass, calcium also keep your teeth healthy and plays roles in nerve signalling, muscle contraction, blood clotting and helps maintain a regular heart rhythm (1).
In sum Calcium is a mineral important for the health of your teeth and bones, but also plays various other roles in your body. Your bone mass reaches its peak in your early thirties and starts declining after that.
Calcium’s most notable co-stars
Calcium isn’t the only factor affecting your bone health. Your bone density also depends on:
- The peak bone mass you began with. The higher your peak bone mass, the longer it will take for your bones to become weak or brittle.
- Your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium from your gut. Low vitamin D levels may cause you to absorb too little calcium, even if your diet is rich in this mineral (2, 3).
- Your physical activity levels. The more physically active you are, the better your bone health. This is especially true if you partake in weight-bearing exercises including walking and weight lifting (4, 5).
- How much alcohol you drink. Regular, heavy alcohol consumption can have a demineralizing effect on your bones (6).
- Whether you smoke. Smoking is linked to weaker bones and may lower your ability to absorb calcium from your diet (7).
- How much salt you eat. Diets too rich in salt may increase the amount of calcium you lose through the urine (8, 9).
- How many fruits and vegetables you eat. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables appears to be linked to healthier, stronger bones (10, 11).
- The phytate and oxalate content of your diet. Phytates and oxalates are compounds naturally found in plant foods that can lower your body’s ability to absorb calcium from your diet (12, 13).
- Getting enough protein. A high intake of protein, particularly from legumes, may keep your bones healthy, lowering your risk of fractures (14, 15).
A calcium-rich diet, in combination with all of these other factors, can help you build and maintain strong and healthy bones.
In sum In addition to calcium, several other factors can affect the health of your bones. It’s the combination of a calcium-rich diet and these other factors that will ultimately determine the health of your bones.
Do vegans have weak bones?
Taken as is, this can be interpreted to meant that vegans have weaker bones than non-vegans.
It appears that vegans who make a concerted effort to get at least 525 mg of calcium from their diet each day have no higher risk of bone fractures than vegetarians or meat-eaters (21).
In other words, a vegan diet won’t weaken your bones or increase your risk of bone fractures as long as it is rich enough in calcium.
In sum Vegans who get enough calcium from their diets do not appear to have weaker bones than those who include meat or dairy in their diet.
Do I need dairy to get enough calcium?
The dairy industry has done a stellar job at marketing milk as the calcium-rich food required for strong bones.
Remember those “Got milk” posters of celebrities proudly bearing a frothy white moustache? It’s no wonder that many people — doctors included — worry about vegans failing to get enough calcium without dairy.
While it’s true that non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, vegans can get it from other foods.
In fact, many plant foods are naturally rich in calcium, and at times, the calcium they contain is actually easier to absorb than the calcium found in milk.
For instance, around 50% of the calcium found in bok choy and turnip greens is absorbable, compared to only 30% of the calcium found in milk (22).
What’s more, vegan alternatives to milk such as plant milks and yogurts are often fortified in calcium. Because of this, they provide the same amount of absorbable calcium as their dairy-based counterparts.
Generally speaking, vegans who include enough calcium-rich foods in their diet can easily meet their calcium requirements — no dairy needed.
In sum Various plant foods are naturally rich in calcium or fortified in this mineral. Vegans that include enough of these foods in their diets can easily meet their calcium requirements without dairy.
Why are vegan diets sometimes low in calcium?
The reference daily intake (RDI) for calcium is set at 1,000 mg per day.
Several factors may explain why some vegans fail to meet their daily calcium needs.
False belief that calcium isn’t that important for bone health
For starters, some vegans hold a false belief about calcium’s importance for bone health.
They may have heard that countries with the lowest rates of hip fractures also happen to have the lowest intake of dairy product, which implies that calcium may be less important for bone health than once thought.
However, this assumption fails to take cultural factors into account.
Researchers now believe that the lower risk of hip fractures seen in countries with low calcium intakes are better explained by cultural factors that reduce the risk of falling than calcium intakes
For instance, in many Asian countries, it is customary for the elderly to receive a lot of help from younger generations, including when walking. This would naturally reduce their risk of falling or fracturing a hip (25).
What’s interesting is that although low-calcium consuming countries a low rate of hip fracture rates, they have much higher rates of spine fractures — a type of fracture unlikely influenced by receiving help with walking (25).
Moreover, one study shows that women eating less calcium-rich foods may be up to 15% more likely to develop osteoporosis — a condition causing weak and brittle bones — than those eating more calcium (25).
All-in-all, calcium-rich diets do remain an important factor for bone health.
False belief that vegans require less calcium than meat eaters
Some vegans may believe that the lack of animal protein in their diets protects their bones, therefore reducing their daily calcium needs.
This belief often stems from older research showing that purified forms of animal protein can increase the amount of calcium lost through urine.
However, newer research suggests that high-protein diets may increase your gut’s ability to absorb calcium from your diet. It also suggests that the extra urinary losses may stem from this increased absorption rather than from calcium being lost from your bones (26).
Newer research further shows that when the extra protein comes from whole foods rather than supplements, it doesn’t seem to negatively affect the body’s calcium balance, even if this protein comes from animal foods (27).
Therefore, there’s no good reason to believe that vegans require less calcium than meat eaters.
Unwillingness to consume fortified foods
Some vegans shy away from foods fortified in calcium.
They either view these foods as unhealthy, since they are not naturally found in the plant kingdom. Or they may feel that a vegan diet based on whole foods should provide them with all the nutrients they need.
While it’s true that you do not need fortified foods to be healthy, there’s also no good reason to avoid them — especially if they make it easier to meet your nutrient needs.
In fact, fortified foods can be helpful to anyone — whether vegan or not.
For instance, most omnivores get their vitamin D from milk, which is fortified with it and white flour is often fortified with folic acid, a B-vitamin that helps reduce the risk of neural tube defects during pregnancy.
A vegan diet devoid of all calcium-fortified foods can make it unnecessarily difficult to meet your daily calcium requirements.
In sum Some vegans hold false beliefs about calcium. These can lead them to consume insufficient amounts of calcium through their diet, ultimately putting their bone health at risk.
How to get enough calcium on a vegan diet
Vegans can use a few simple strategies to ensure they get enough calcium solely from plant foods.
Eat enough calcium-rich plant foods
Here are the best plant-based source of calcium (28):
- Leafy greens: Especially ones low in oxalates, such as kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, and, to a lower extent, collard greens.
- Legumes: Especially calcium-set tofu, edamame, soybeans, winged (goa) beans, white, navy, black and kidney beans as well as chickpeas and lentils.
- Nuts and seeds: Particularly almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and macadamias as well as chia seeds, tahini, flaxseeds and sesame seeds.
- Some grains: Especially teff and amaranth.
- Seaweed: Particularly wakame and kelp. Keep in mind that kelp may contain excessively large amounts of iodine per portion, which can have a negative impact on your thyroid gland (29, 30).
- Some fruit: Raw figs, oranges, blackcurrants, blackberries and raspberries are the fruits richest in calcium.
- Fortified foods: Such as fortified plant milks, yoghurts, orange juice, as well as some cereal and baked goods. Make sure to shake drinks before consuming, as calcium tends to settle to the bottom.
- Blackstrap molasses: Although this sweetener does offer a good amount of calcium, it remains very high in sugar and should be eaten in moderation.
Here’s a printable list of the plant foods richest in calcium, listed in decreasing order of calcium content per food group. Feel free to refer to it when planning your calcium-rich meals.
Boost your calcium absorption
The current RDI for calcium is based on the assumption that your body will absorb, on average, 25-30% of the calcium you eat (31).
As mentioned earlier, the amount of calcium you actually absorb from plant foods can vary from one food to another, and is mostly influenced by the amount of oxalates the food contains.
Oxalates are compounds naturally found in plant foods that can bind to calcium in your gut, reducing the amount your body can absorb (32).
Calcium absorption from high-oxalate foods may be as low as 5%. This explains why spinach, rhubarb, beet greens and Swiss chard aren’t considered good sources despite their seemingly high calcium content (33, 34).
However, research suggests that you may be able to reduce oxalate levels in vegetables by 30-87% simply by boiling them. Similarly, soaking legumes prior to cooking appears to cut their oxalate content in half (35).
Soaking and boiling may help boost your calcium absorption from oxalate-rich foods. But these techniques will work on low-oxalate foods too.
In sum Vegans can meet the RDI for calcium by eating a variety of calcium-rich plant foods. They can also boost their calcium absorption by boiling or soaking oxalate-rich foods prior to eating them.
Calcium-rich vegan meal and snack ideas
I’ve listed the % RDI for each, so you can get an easy idea of how much of your daily calcium requirements each combination can fulfill.
1. White beans (16%) + broccoli (6%) = 22%
Simmer these together in low-sodium veggie stock and blend using a hand mixer or high-speed blender to create a creamy calcium-rich soup. Season with chilli peppers and a dash of apple cider vinegar.
2. Black beans (5%) + kale (18%) = 23%
Make an all-dressed jacket potato by baking an english or sweet potato and filling it with black beans, salsa, avocado and sautéed kale.
3. Kale (18%) + tempeh (11%) + tahini (13%) = 42%
De-stem, cut and massage your kale and toss together with marinated tempeh, some whole grains and your favorite veggies to create a meal salad. Drizzle with a tahini-lemon dressing.
4. Black beans (5%) + chia seeds (18%) + cabbage (4%) + = 27%
Combine the first two ingredients to make a black bean burger. Top with roasted onions, pickled red pepper and avocado and serve with a side of coleslaw.
5. Edamame (26%) + bok choy (16%) = 42%
Stir-fry together with rice noodles, baby corn, snap peas and a teriyaki sauce.
6. Tofu (35%) + mustard greens (17%) = 52%
Make a tofu scramble and serve with a side of oven-baked sweet potatoes and sautéed mustard greens. You can also skip the potatoes and roll your tofu scramble and mustard greens in a whole wheat wrap.
7. Plant yoghurt (30%) + raspberries (3%) + walnuts (4%) = 37%
Here’s a simple snack combination, which can be enjoyed as is. Alternatively, add some muesli and a sprinkle of coconut flakes for a filling breakfast.
8. Wakame (6%) + sesame seeds (18%) = 24%
Seaweed salad to be enjoyed on its own, or as a side to veggie sushis. Make sure to select unhulled (brown) sesame seeds whenever possible, as these are richer in calcium than the hulled (white) varieties.
9. Chia seeds (36%) + raspberries (3%) = 39%
Chia pudding to be enjoyed as a breakfast or a snack. It can be topped with your choice of ingredients, including nuts, seeds or coconut flakes.
10. Amaranth (12%) + pistachios (4%) + broccoli (6%) = 22%
Combine these ingredients to make a veggie bowl. Top with your favorite roasted veggies and the salad dressing of your choice.
11. Kale (9%) + plant milk (30%) + flaxseeds (4%) = 43%
Blend all ingredients together with some frozen mango and a small banana for a delicious, calcium-rich smoothie.
12. Chickpeas (8%) + blackstrap molasses (20%) = 28%
Coat your chickpeas with a little bit of oil mixed with blackstrap molasses and the spices of your choice and roast them for around 15-20 minutes. Eat as a snack or substitute for croutons in salads.
13. Lentils (4%) + broccoli (6%) + ground flaxseeds (4%) = 14%
Cook the lentils and broccoli together in low-sodium veggie broth with carrots and celery for a quick and filling lentil soup. Sprinkle with ground flaxseeds for a nutty, calcium-rich, flavor.
14. Dried figs (2%) + almonds (11%) = 13%
Use these ingredients as toppings for oatmeal, smoothie bowls or yoghurts or simply enjoy on their own as a calcium-rich snack.
15. Tempeh (11%) + watercress (4%) = 15%
Make a spicy tempeh wrap by rolling these two ingredients in a whole wheat tortilla wrap, together with some shredded carrots, tomatoes, avocado and spicy vegan mayo.
16. Tofu (25%) + kelp (4%) + sesame seeds (9%) = 38%
Combine these ingredients together with miso and water to make your own miso soup. Add mushrooms, green chard, green onions and any other veggies of your choice and sprinkle with some sesame seeds.
In sum The vegan meal and snack ideas above provide good amounts of plant-based calcium, and can serve as inspiration when planning your own calcium-rich menus.
To sum it all up
It is definitely possible to meet your calcium needs without including dairy in your diet.
To get enough calcium on a vegan diet, you should make sure to eat sufficient amounts of calcium-rich whole plant foods. Boiling and soaking these foods can help your body absorb more of the calcium they contain.
Calcium-fortified foods can also make it easier to get enough calcium on a vegan diet.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them down below. And if you enjoyed this article and would like to see more like it, do let me know!