Want to eat a whole food plant-based diet but worried you won't get enough calcium? Valid concern — it's important for healthy bones (among other things). And most of us grew up hearing that the best source of calcium is dairy, which leaves many WFPB dieters feeling at a loss. But fear not! There are plenty of non-dairy calcium sources for your plant powered life.
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Calcium is very important in blood clotting, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, bone and tooth formation, and the secretion of hormones and enzymes.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in your body – the body of an adult human contains approximately 1000 to 1500 grams! 99 percent of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth and the remaining 1 percent can be found in the rest of your body’s tissues and fluids.
Our bones are dynamic and are constantly breaking down and rebuilding. Even though it’s seemingly always solid and hard, bone mass is turned over as much as 15 percent every year; this shows the potential of your diet to influence the strength and density of your bones throughout your lifetime.
You can work to maintain your bone density throughout the years by paying attention to calcium and vitamin D intake, staying active, eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoiding smoking, and limiting alcohol.
Before we talk about whether you can get enough calcium on a whole food plant-based diet, it's important to note that with calcium, how much you consume isn’t necessarily the issue. What’s more important is how much you absorb.
Calcium absorption determines the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 1000 mg of calcium per day for adults (1200 mg for those over 50). People generally absorb 25-30 percent of the calcium in their diets.
Absorption rates for calcium-set tofu (usually made with calcium sulfate) and for many fortified milks (make sure to shake the carton since the calcium can settle at the bottom) are about 30 percent, while for other WFPB foods, it may vary from as little as 5 percent to as much as 65 percent.
Factors that influence calcium absorption include age, how much you need, how much you take in, and other compounds that accompany the calcium when you consume it. Also, make sure blood levels of vitamin D are adequate so calcium can be absorbed by using sun therapy! Regular, safe doses of the sun without sunscreen at peak hours (10-15 minutes for light-skinned people and up to 30 minutes for darker-skinned people).
OK, so let's get down to brass tacks. What's the deal with calcium and a WFPB diet?
Contrary to popular belief, calcium is “plantiful” in plants (see what I did there...), so you don’t need to reach for cow's milk or other animal products to get your daily dose.
Pro Tip: A quick and easy breakfast of fortified vegan cereal (which are everywhere nowadays) and a glass of fortified non-dairy milk could provide you with 70 percent of your daily recommended intake!
1. Green Leafy Vegetables (Broccoli, Cabbage, Collard Greens, Kale, Bok Choy)
Note that certain leafy greens — such as spinach, beet greens, and chard — are high in oxalates, compounds that bind calcium and reduce its absorption. Collard greens, mentioned earlier, are a bit high in oxalates too, but they are also very rich in calcium and can so they are considered a good source of this nutrient.
2. Fortified Unsweetened Soy, Rice and Oat Milks
Need help finding the best plant-based milk for your WFPB diet? Get up to speed on all things non-dairy milk here.
3. Calcium-set Tofu
Don't like tofu? Well, you might just be preparing it wrong. Here's the secret to making tofu taste good, every time!
4. Sesame Seeds and Tahini
One of the easiest ways to get more tahini in your diet? This mouth-watering tahini dressing (and yep, it's oil-free so you can enjoy it on your whole food plant-based diet, no problem).
5. Beans, Peas, and Lentils
One of the easiest way to eat more immunity-boosting lentils? Try these ready-made Jerk Lentils from MamaSezz.
6. Dried Fruit (Prunes, Raisins, Figs, and Apricots)
Dried fruit is nature's candy...and it can absolutely be included in your healthy WFPB diet.
Especially wakame and kelp! And if you're missing tuna fish on your WFPB diet, you'll be pleased to know you can enjoy the flavor you love without compromising your health goals, thanks to the best-selling Tuna "Ish" Salad from MamaSezz, which is made with (you guessed it!) kelp!
- Calcium is key for blood clotting, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, bone and tooth formation, and the secretion of hormones and enzymes.
- When it comes to your health, it's not just about calcium intake, but calcium absorption! Factors that influence calcium absorption include age, how much you need, how much you take in, and other compounds that accompany the calcium when you consume it. Also, make sure blood levels of vitamin D are adequate so calcium can be absorbed by using sun therapy.
- You can definitely get all the calcium you need on a WFPB diet by loading up on non dairy calcium rich foods, like green leafy vegetables, fortified plant-based milks, calcium-set tofu, sesame seeds and tahini, beans, peas, and lentils, dried fruit, and seaweed!
Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.