The benefits of being a vegan have been proven by numerous studies, but it’s very important to understand that no meal plan is perfect. When it comes to eating exclusively plant-based foods, the potential for nutritional deficiencies increases. The biggest concerns in this case are vitamin B12 and calcium. The former cannot be obtained from plants, so supplementation is a must. However, vegan calcium is a bit more complicated.
The most important thing about it is that there are vegan foods that can provide you with a sufficient amount of this essential mineral. However, there are many factors that you need to consider, such as the amounts of these foods and level of calcium absorption. This issue concerns not only vegans as fortified foods are marketed to everyone for a reason.
The truth is that only a fraction of the calcium we consume is processed by the body. Therefore, even eating enough servings of calcium-rich foods may not provide you with a sufficient amount of this element, which is 1,000 mg per day for adults under 50 and 1,200 over 50.
Please note that consuming over 1,400 mg per day might be dangerous. The research of this subject is not complete, but professional nutritionists advise to keep your intake under this amount.
Vegan Calcium Sources: Absorption Levels Breakdown
The biggest issue with calcium is its poor absorption rate. This is the reason why even omnivores have a hard time preventing this particular deficiency as we absorb only 30% of this mineral from cow’s milk.
Vegan sources of this element have the following absorption rates:
- Leafy green vegetables.
For all their incredible health benefits, leafy greens cannot provide you with a large amount of calcium, although they contain lots of it. The problem lies in oxalates, elements that bind this mineral and prevent absorption. Therefore, you only get about 5% of the total calcium content in your spinach, chard, and beet greens.
- Broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens.
These ‘green foods’ contain low levels of oxalates. They are the best sources of vegan calcium because they contain a variation of this mineral that is easily absorbed (50-65%, the highest level in natural food sources).
- Legumes, nuts, and seeds.
All of them contain some calcium, but it’s not easily absorbed. Soaking legumes and seeds usually helps increase this rate by a few margins. Soybeans have the highest absorption rate among beans and sesame seeds contain a lot of calcium. These foods can match the rate of cow’s milk (30%).
- Fortified tofu.
This food also allows you to absorb 30% of calcium, though the amount of it in the product varies depending on the manufacturer. Be sure to check the labels when developing your meal plan.
- Fortified plant milks.
This source of vegan calcium that is almost as good as cow’s milk is for omnivores, offering 25-30% absorption. Remember that it’s essential to shake the carton before pouring as calcium carbonate settles to the bottom.
- Fortified fruit juices.
Surprisingly these beverages offer an absorption rate that matches or even exceeds cow’s milk. You’ll have to shake the carton too, but potentially, you can get more mineral from juice than from plant milks.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Your level of vitamin D is directly tied to your level of calcium because our bodies need it to process this mineral. Therefore, a deficiency in this vitamin means that you won’t get enough calcium even from foods with a high absorption rate.
Neither omnivores nor vegans can meet the RDA of vitamin D from food alone as it’s only available in very small amounts from wild-caught fatty fish. Our bodies produce it naturally when we are exposed to sunlight.
Considering the risk of skin cancer and the varied level of this production (depends on season, time, length of exposure, etc.), everyone needs extra supplementation of vitamin D. Adults under 50 require 800 IU daily, and over 50 – 800-1,000 IU.
Vegan Calcium Supplements: Pros and Cons
There are many types of vegan-friendly calcium supplements. It’s true that these products can help you make up for any gaps in your diet, so taking them might be a wise decision. However, you shouldn’t forget about the risks associated with calcium overdose. Therefore, it’s essential to calculate the amount of the mineral you get from food. This way, you will be able to choose a supplement that meets your needs.
When shopping for these products, you should consider the following factors:
- Buy from reputed brands so that you can be sure that the supplement’s contents really match the info on the label.
- Check the amount of ‘elemental calcium’ in the product as it’s the amount of actual mineral you can get from it. Be sure to pay attention to the serving size and ‘amount per serving’.
You should always take these supplements with food. This way, your body would be able to digest them more easily, so you’ll absorb calcium better.
It’s important to consume your calcium in doses up to 500 mg per meal. This facilitates absorption. However, if you can only take it once a day, you should go for it instead of risking a deficiency.
With vegan calcium supplements, it’s best to start slow so that your body can get used to them. As they are notoriously difficult to digest, they might cause constipation and/or gas. This issue is usually resolved by increasing your fluid intake and taking supplements with food. If this doesn’t help, try products from a different manufacturer.
Calcium Loss and How to Reduce It
Another important issue to bear in mind is the fact that we lose large amounts of calcium due to some of our lifestyle choices. Omnivores are at risk of this deficiency because diets high in protein lead to calcium loss by default.
Vegans should watch out for the following things:
- High caffeine intake
- Consumption of sodium-rich foods
How to Get Enough Calcium as a Vegan
To get the required daily dose of calcium as a vegan you need to plan your diet very carefully. It’s imperative to calculate how much of it you get from foods, considering the differences in absorption rates.
Next, you should start taking vitamin D supplements so that you can really get the maximum of this mineral from foods.
Finally, you should make up the difference between RDA and the amount you get from meals by taking vegan calcium supplements. Bear in mind that more doesn’t mean better in this case, so you should stick to 1,000 mg per day.