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Calcium

by Okanagan Nutrition

If you grew up like me, you probably religiously drank a glass of milk with dinner to make sure you had healthy bones and teeth! A lot of people still believe this to be true and bone health is one of the biggest concerns people have when cutting out or reducing dairy in their diets.

So, can you get enough calcium in your diet as a plant-based eater?

Of course!

It is possible to have excellent bone health while following a plant-based diet! Let’s take a closer look.

Why is calcium important?

Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, in fact 99% of your total calcium is stored there! The remaining 1% of calcium not in bone or teeth, is needed for muscle contraction, cell signalling and tightening or relaxing of your blood vessels!

How much calcium do we need on a daily basis?

Remember, these recommended intakes include calcium from both supplements and food combined.

Recommended intakes as per Health Canada

Adequate calcium intake is especially important during childhood and adolescence to support proper growth.

You know the old saying, “It’s all downhill from here”? Well, it’s kind of true in terms of your bone density (how strong your bones are). After the age of 30, your bone density starts to decline.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help minimize this loss and one of them is eating getting enough calcium from our diet!

Label reading tip!

When looking at a food label, you’ll notice the far right there is a ‘% Daily Value’ or ‘% DV’. This value is calculated using the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA). In Canada, the RDA used for calcium is 1100 mg.

So, by looking at calcium on this food label, 10% DV, we know that per serving, this product gives us 110 mg of calcium.

For a quicker approximation of how many mg’s calcium are in a product, simply add a ‘zero’ to the % DV value.

So for example, this product has about 100 mg of calcium per serving.

If a product had 130% DV for calcium, it would have about 1300 mg calcium per serving and so on — less accurate, but much quicker!

Calcium from plants

  • 1/2 cup collard greens, cooked, 189 mg
  • 1/2 cup spinach, cooked, 154 mg
  • 1/2 cup kale, cooked, 95 mg
  • 3/4 cup soy yogurt, 206 mg (on par with dairy)
  • 1 cup fortified soy milk, 321-324 mg (on par with dairy)
  • 1 cup fortified cashew, rice, almond or coconut, 177-331 mg (depends on brand)
  • 1 cup fortified orange juice, 155 mg
  • 3/4 cup tofu with calcium sulfate, 302-525 mg (depends on brand)
  • 2 tbsp tahini (sesame seed butter), 93-141 mg
  • 1/4 cup almonds, 93 mg
  • 3/4 cup beans (white, navy), cooked, 93-141 mg
  • 1/2 cup dried figs, 121 mg
  • 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses, 179 mg
Always check the food label and ingredients list to see if the product is fortified with calcium! Fortified foods can help hugely in meeting our recommended daily intakes, so take advantage!

Note that your homemade nut milks, although delicious, are not fortified and are not a source of calcium (or vitamin D or B12 for that matter)

What would I have to eat in a day to get enough calcium?

Breakfast
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal, 1 cup fortified milk alternative, 1/2 cup berries, 2 tbsp almonds = 350 mg
Lunch
  • Pita with 1/2 cup hummus, 2 cups kale salad with hemp hearts = ~200 mg
Dinner
  • 3/4 cup tofu with 3 cups broccoli, peppers and spinach with tbsp tahini dressing = ~800mg
Snack
  • 3/4 cup fortified soy yogurt with fresh fruit = ~206 mg
Total daily calcium = ~1500 mg

Should I take a calcium supplement?

As with everything, try for food first!

Calcium supplements should really just be used to make up for a deficit of calcium in your diet. Remember, the recommended daily allowances are based on food + supplements!

If you’re thinking of starting a calcium supplement, talk with your primary care provider first.

Tips to increase your calcium intake and absorption!

  • Your body can only utilize 500 mg of elemental calcium at one time, so taking large doses or eating one calcium rich meal throughout the day is not beneficial. Instead, eat calcium rich foods (as above) throughout the day!
  • Eat a variety of dark green vegetables daily — spinach, broccoli, kale, collard greens!
  • Drink fortified nut milks and tofu prepared with calcium sulfate
    • Aim for 2-3 servings per day (1 cup milk alternative or 1/2 cup tofu equal one serving).
  • Limit salt, caffeine (~2 cups/day), alcohol and smoking, as these things can increase the amount of calcium you lose.
  • If taking a calcium supplement …
    • Ensure you’re not taking more than 500 mg elemental calcium at one time.
      • The amount of elemental calcium should be listed on your supplement!
    • Calcium citrate and malate are best absorbed without food
    • Calcium carbonate is best absorbed when taken with food.
    • Do not take a calcium supplement at the same time as an iron supplement as it can decrease the absorption of iron.
  • Vitamin D does help increase calcium absorption BUT, you do not need to take vitamin D at the same time as calcium.
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