Is the Calcium Fix for Vegans Elusive? It doesn’t have to be…
One of the most important nutrients in our diet, calcium is a must not just for bone and teeth health, but also for clotting of blood, muscular control and proper functioning of nervous system. While vegans often worry about getting enough protein in their diet, protein it is an easy (or at least easier) target to achieve. But calcium? That’s another story altogether. With dairy out of the equation, what does one eat, especially fussy kids who wouldn’t eat greens in any form?
First Things First – How Much Calcium do We Need?
A lot of vegan foods have calcium, but there is something that you must understand; the difference between available (or bioavailable) and unavailable calcium. Bioavailable calcium is that which can be readily absorbed by the body. While we all need about 250-300 mg of calcium daily, the Recommended Daily Allowance is 1000mg. Most recommendations are based assuming dairy as the source of this calcium which allows for about 2/3 to be absorbed by the body. Dairy has more bioavailable calcium than most other sources, say spinach. So, while spinach is touted to be replete with calcium – and it is – the fact is that hardly any of it can be absorbed by the body (i.e. it is not bioavailable) as the oxalates present in it inhibit absorption of calcium. (A glass of milk has 270-305 mg calcium).
Next time you want to check the calcium content in a food, you might want to run a quick search for bioavailability as well, here.
Vegan Sources of Calcium
It is true that vegans need to really work hard (or smart) to get appropriate amount of calcium in their diets as eating 3-4 cups of greens may not sound like the most appetising idea. So here is a list of foods you can have that assure you get a good helping of calcium in every bite –
(96 mg calcium per 1/4cup) Soak them to get rid of the Phytates and get maximum calcium absorption. Not only do soaked almonds offer more bioavailable calcium, they become easier to digest and taste great as well.
2. Blackstrap Molasses
(400 mg calcium per 2 tbsp) A super nutritious sweetener, add this to desserts.
3. Chia Seeds
(175 mg per 2 tbsp) Chia Seeds are packed with calcium; this is in addition to being the richest plant source of Omega -3 Fatty Acids and super easy to incorporate into a variety of recipes. I love adding these to cupcakes and cookies that I bake for the kids.
(100 mg calcium per cup of prepared Edamame) Another good source for you and your vegan family as you can get a good deal of calcium simply by snacking on the good stuff.
Figs are a good fruit source of calcium. Their high potassium content may counteract the urinary excretion of calcium caused by high salt diets. This in turn helps to keep calcium in bones. Munch on dried figs for snack-time or make fig sauce or fig jam – a delicious food however you choose to consume it. Get munching! You can check out some more health benefits of figs on BBC GoodFood.
(100 mg per 1 cup of chopped raw kale) Who hasn’t heard of this superfood; you can add calcium to its already wonderful reputation as a powerhouse of nutrition. Simply stir-fry it with garlic or add it to stews or smoothies. My favourite way to eat Kale is to brush some olive oil and salt on it and bake it for a few minutes. Kids love these Kale Chips too. For something fancier, check out this delightful recipe by Jamie Oliver for Salt & Cinnamon Kale Crisps.
7. Sesame Seeds / Tahini
Sesame seeds offer around 80 mg of Calcium per tablespoon. I know it’s not easy to eat a tablespoon of sesame seeds, enter Tahini. Densely packed with calcium, it is a delightfully tasty way to get the much-needed mineral. Just 2 tablespoons of Tahini, will give you 128 mg of Calcium. Not bad at all! To reach the RDI of calcium though, you’d still have to consume almost 2 cups of tahini, which is rather excessive. Besides, it’s a high calorie food, so you don’t want to go overboard anyway.
Amount of calcium in Tofu can vary depending on the coagulating agent used to make it – it can be as high as 200-400 mg per cup. Your best bet would be to check the label. Icing on the cake is that Tofu is also a great source of protein for vegans, so win win!
(180 mg per 1 cup) If you are not choosing fortified, this is the holy grail of calcium for vegans. Studies have shown that absorption of calcium from Tempeh does not differ significantly from the absorption of calcium from cow’s milk, making this one of the best vegan sources of calcium. However, you would still need 4 servings (of 200gm) of tempeh to get equal amount of absorbed calcium as you get from a glass milk.
10. Turnip Greens
(100 mg per 1 cup of chopped raw turnip greens) Not only do Turnip greens offer 104 mg of calcium per cup, they’re packed full with nutrients and provide us with many important vitamins and minerals.
While the fruits and vegetables mentioned above are some of the most densely packed vegan sources of calcium, there are others that come close such as Mustard Greens, Broccoli, Okra, Beans, Bok Choy, Pulses and many Dried Fruits (raisins, prunes, apricots, etc).
Theory Vs Practical, Make Friends with Fortified
It is easy to preach but actually eating 3 cups of greens might be a big task not just for kids but for us as well. If you’re being unable to get adequate amounts of calcium in your diet, go for fortified foods. Not that you should ignore natural foods, but fortified can go a long way in making up for what you might be losing out on on account of lack of dairy in the diet. Fortified almond or soya milk, calcium set tofu, fortified cereal, fortified orange juice and other fortified foods can help you sidestep calcium deficiency, if needed.
- Fortified Hemp Milk – If you’re vegan, a nut or soy allergy might mean having to rethink food choices. But Hemp milk comes to the rescue and is a great alternative to dairy, nut and soy milks. A cup that has been fortified gives just as much calcium as dairy milk – about 428 mg.
- Fortified Soy, Almond or Rice Milk – While Soy, Almond and Rice milk have very different amounts of calcium, once fortified this difference is levelled at about 200-300mg per cup.
- Fortified Orange Juice – Not just milk, fruit juices can also help you pack on the calcium. Fortified orange juice adds about 350mg calcium per cup.
Reduce Calcium Loss
Another approach to maxing the calcium you ingest is to reduce its loss. While it is not yet confirmed, it is believed that high protein and high sodium diets cause more calcium loss through urine. Caffeine and smoking also up the amount of calcium lost.
By watching out for these small losses, building up on the foods good for your bones and by choosing the right recipes to incorporate calcium in your diet without much ado, a lot of bother can be taken out of getting a balanced diet right.