A plant-based vegan diet that includes foods such as vegetables, leafy greens, legumes and pulses (e.g. Puy lentils, green or brown lentils, split peas, chickpeas, beans, tofu), wholegrains, herbs, spices, fruits, nuts and seeds provides a wealth of natural nutrition in the form of proteins, carbohydrates, oils, fibers, vitamins, minerals, and an array of plant chemicals that play vital roles in health and disease protection... everything that the body needs for "life"... literally!
But what about calcium specifically? How do we ensure we’re getting enough on a vegan diet?
Calcium (as well as calcium’s “friends” magnesium, potassium, boron and vitamin D) is the body’s most abundant mineral, needed especially for strong healthy bones and teeth. Minerals such as calcium are also vital for healthy muscle contraction, and a healthy functioning nervous system.
The majority of us, at any stage of life, need approximately 800-1000mg per day, and preferably in a natural form present in a wide variety of foods. This not only ensures optimal absorption of calcium, but also guarantees a balance of other important nutrients that work synergistically with calcium.
Calcium should never be viewed in isolation. In terms of bone health for example, other nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin K, protein and potassium also play an important role in building and maintaining strong bones.
According to the Vegan Society, a 5-year study 34,696 adults found that vegans had a higher risk of bone fracture when compared to meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians. This appeared to be a result of their lower calcium intake. However, no increase in risk was found in those vegans consuming at least 525 mg of calcium per day, which highlights the importance of ensuring we get an adequate intake of calcium.
Here are some examples of plant-based calcium-rich foods that are also well-balanced for example, with ample amounts of magnesium, protein and iron. Many are good sources of fiber too!
Look at the following list and familiarise yourself with the variety of foods you can regularly include in the diet. The mg figures given indicate mg of calcium per 100g food.
- Almonds (240mg)
- Raw spinach (170mg)
- Cooked spinach (150mg)
- Canned chickpeas (43mg)
- Raw broccoli (56mg)
- Cooked broccoli (40mg)
- Pak Choi (105mg)
- Cos or Romaine lettuce (33mg)
- Oats (54mg)
- Quinoa (60mg)
- Sunflower seeds (110mg)
- Pumpkin seeds (39mg)
- Hazelnuts (140mg)
- Raw curly kale (130mg)
- Cooked curly kale (150mg)
- Tahini/sesame seed spread (680mg)
Tofu (soya bean curd) is also an excellent and very versatile source of calcium, providing 200-240mg calcium per 100g and can be used in soups, salads or stir-fries.
Many seaweeds or sea vegetables are generally very rich in calcium and in perfect balance with other important minerals. Look for easy-to-use Nori seaweed sheets for delicious vegetable wraps or rolls. Alternatively dried seaweeds such as arame or kombu strips are perfect for soups, salads and stir-fries. My favourite sea vegetable is samphire grass (often called marsh samphire), which is widely available in the UK along coastal regions, during the summer months. It’s best eaten raw, but is equally delicious and nutritious very lightly steamed. Samphire is full of calcium, other minerals, B vitamins and fiber.
“To increase the overall mineral content of the diet, eat natural wholegrains such as wholegrain rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and barley, plenty of dark green leafy greens, lettuces & other vegetables, small handfuls of seeds (especially pumpkin seeds, shelled hempseeds, sesame or sunflower seeds) or nuts such as almonds as snacks mid-morning or afternoon. In addition, add sea vegetables or 100g soaked or steamed tofu to vegetables, lunchtime salads, or to soups/stews or stir-fries”.
How to improve absorption of calcium on a plant-based diet
Plant-based diets are, by nature, high in fiber. Many high-fiber wholegrains and raw greens contain mineral blockers or anti-nutrients (e.g. phytic acid), which bind to minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron. However this need not be a problem for plant-based or vegan eaters, if staple foods are prepared properly. I suggest getting into the habit of soaking wholegrains such as oats, quinoa, barley, and rice overnight, or for a couple of hours before use.
In addition, it’s wise to soak nuts in some warm salty water before peeling them, and then consuming them. Legumes definitely need sufficient soaking before cooking... or better still sprout them! Sprouting is easy, using seed trays. Some of my favourite “sprouts” include lentil and fenugreek sprouts – both easy to sprout and very tasty indeed.
The benefits of sprouting are numerous. Sprouting changes foods to become more digestible, more alkaline in nature (a big bonus), and vastly increases the nutrient and food enzyme content - they are superbly nutritious to the human body!
Here’s a quick low-down on how to add more calcium to your diet
Have a large salad every day that includes nutritious foods such as leafy greens, broccoli, pak choi, kale, seeds or nuts, seaweeds and sea vegetables, lentils or tofu.