If you’re currently living a plant-based dietary lifestyle, then there’s a good chance that you’ve been cautioned about all of the vital nutrients you “just can’t get” without eating animal products. Don’t take it personally; these people are just trying to help. But the reality is that, over all, plant-based diets actually provide a more complete nutrient profile than is found in more traditional diets.
And when you think about it, it’s actually not that hard to see why. After all, the nutrients and energy we consume can ultimately can be traced back to the sun and the earth. The sun feeds green chlorophyllic plants (which also leach nutrients from the soil). Herbivores eat those plants, and then carnivores eat the herbivores — passing energy and nutrients along through each trophic level. And, with that handoff, about about 90% of the available energy gets lost in the shuffle. Naturally, it’s a bit more complex than all that, but the simple fact is that there’s more nutrition available the closer you get to the source. And because eating sunlight directly isn’t an option (aside from soaking up some healthy vitamin D), consuming plant-based foods is the next best thing.
But whatever the case, there will always be those who want to tell you that a plant-based diet is inadequate to meet your body’s needs. Specifically, they like to focus on a few vital nutrients that are found abundantly in animal products: protein, vitamin B12, and calcium.
Honestly, protein isn’t actually much of an issue. There are many plant foods that are rich in protein (beans, lentils, and tempeh for example), and research shows that vegetarians, vegans, and whole-food plant-based dieters generally get almost double their daily recommended protein amounts — even without binging on tofu. Vitamin B12 is the one nutrient that isn’t found naturally in non-animal products as it’s made by bacteria that’s commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. But we live in the 21st century, and there are so many plant-based foods that can be fortified with B12, that working it into your whole-food plant-based diet isn’t difficult.
But what about calcium?
Before we get into the details, we’ll just come right out and tell you. Yes, there are plant-based foods high in calcium. And once again, if you’re eating a healthy range of plant-based foods, then you’re probably getting all the plant-based calcium you need.
That’s a good thing, too, because calcium is kind of a big deal. In addition to helping keep our bones nice and dense (and less fracture prone), calcium is involved in blood clotting, may play a part in maintaining blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and is essential in regulating muscle contractions (such as the muscle contractions that keep your heart beating). All in all, pretty important stuff. But don’t go reaching for that glass of milk just yet.
You see, of all the foods high in calcium, milk and other dairy products have long been touted as the all-around-best source of calcium. But while milk does contain large amounts of calcium, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best source of calcium. Some studies have suggested that increased milk consumption has no effect (or possibly even a negative effect) on bone strength. And even if that isn’t the case, there’s a lot more in milk than just calcium. Milk carries with it certain dangers; it’s high in saturated fat (making it a potential cause of heart disease), and casein, the animal protein found in milk, has been linked to increased risk for cancer. Yikes.
The bottom line here is that even if it contains a lot of calcium, milk probably doesn’t do a body good.
But that’s OK, because like we said, there are other foods high in calcium. Take a look.
In addition to the foods high in calcium listed above, plant-based/vegan calcium can also be found in decent amounts in beans, lentils, turnip greens, leafy greens, seeds, nuts, and more.
Calcium is also available through supplements and fortified foods, if that’s something you’re interested in. But why make things more difficult than they have to be? Unlike vitamin B12, the calcium in supplements and fortified foods varies in how bioavailable it is, which means that your body may not be able to absorb it as well as it does natural sources. Additionally, it can be easy to go overboard with supplements, and too much calcium can lead to a lot of other health problems.
Keep it simple. If you’re committed to making the vegan or whole-food plant-based diet work, then you should be eating a variety of plant-based foods anyway. And if your diet is already rich in leafy greens, beans, and other nutrient-dense options, then you’re probably getting a decent amount of plant-based/vegan calcium without needing to turn to processed, synthesized, or fortified solutions. After all, when at all possible, whole foods are always the better way to go.
If you’re actively living a plant-based dietary lifestyle, then there are a lot of things that are missing from your diet: meat, dairy, refined foods — you know, the stuff that can make you sick and kill you. But as for vital nutrients such as calcium, plant foods have you covered.
The whole-food plant-based diet is designed to give you the complete nutrition your body needs, and that includes the stuff that most people think only comes from milk. Plant sources of calcium aren’t difficult to come by, and if you’re getting your calcium from greens and beans, then your bones (and the rest of you) are sure to be happy.
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