Myth: I won’t get enough calcium without dairy in my diet
For a lot of people, giving up dairy is usually one of the most difficult parts while following a vegan diet. Most people who’ve just started their journey on this wonderful and healthy path have a few apprehensions when it comes to a dairy-free diet. And the most common one is- “Will I get enough calcium if I stop consuming dairy?”
To answer this, one first needs to understand how much calcium is “enough calcium”. Normally, adults aged 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Daily calcium requirement increases to 1,200 mg after the age of 70 for men and 50 for women. Children and teenagers, 9 to 18, require 1,300 mg of the nutrient each day. Younger children (4 to 8 years) need 1,000 mg and one- to three-year-olds need 700 mg daily.
While most of us consider dairy to be the primary source of calcium in our diet, it’s not the only source. There are other excellent sources of calcium that make it entirely possible to meet one’s daily calcium needs from a dairy-free diet.
Did you know substituting cow’s milk with a fortified non-dairy beverage (e.g. soy, almond, rice, coconut) in smoothies and for breakfast cereal, results in just as much calcium as you would get if you used dairy milk? Cultured coconut milk, a dairy-free alternative to yogurt, is also fortified with calcium. Green vegetables, such as kale, bok choy, spinach, and broccoli, are also great sources for calcium. Leafy green vegetables are also high in vitamin K, a nutrient that a lot of studies have linked to better bone health.
If you eat your vegetables cooked rather than raw, the calcium absorption is greater in your body. That’s because some plant foods contain oxalates, natural compounds that bind to calcium, causing it to be poorly absorbed. Cooking vegetables increases the amount of calcium that is available for absorption by releasing what’s bound to oxalates.
The amount of nutrient that is actually absorbed, or available for absorption in your digestive tract is known as bioavailability. There is often a portion of a nutrient that, even though ingested, won’t get absorbed by your body. This could be due to a local environmental factor (like the pH of your digestive tract) or the presence of other foods in the digestive tract that either directly inhibits or competes for absorption. This bioavailability is sometimes referred to as the fractional absorption (as in the fraction that is absorbed) and this value can vary quite a bit.
On average, about 30% of dietary calcium is absorbed. This means that even though the recommended intake for calcium is 1000 mg (for an adult), not all of the 1000 mg of calcium ingested will be absorbed.
While dairy products are often considered to be the optimal source of dietary calcium, the calcium absorption rate from these foods (except cheese) is not as high as from dark green vegetables. Compared to dairy products, you can consume more calcium in the form of dark green vegetables without overshooting your calorie goals. Additionally, the bioavailability of calcium in calcium-fortified soy milk is similar to that of cow’s milk.
Vegans who consume a higher protein diet may also reduce their risk for bone fracture. Meat analogues and legumes have shown to have a protective effect on bones. Other higher protein plant foods like beans and soy foods contain essential amino acids for bone health.
Calcium is not the only important nutrient for bone health. Plant sources of calcium offer other nutrients that are important for maintaining strong bones. Moreover, plant-based nutrients can be absorbed more easily than those coming from other sources.
And it’s not only about green vegetables or soy milk. There are some great calcium-rich plant-based foods that you should include in your diet.
Seeds are tiny nutritional powerhouses. Some are high in calcium, including poppy, sesame, celery and chia seeds.
Beans & Lentils:
Beans and lentils are high in fiber, protein and micronutrients. They also contain lots of iron, zinc, folate, magnesium and potassium. Some varieties also have decent amounts of calcium.
Almonds are the richest source of calcium when it comes to nuts.
Dried figs are rich in antioxidants and fiber. They also have more calcium than other dried fruits.
However, it is also important to ensure that the body gets a sufficient amount of vitamin D to optimise calcium absorption. Supplements should be taken into consideration as they offer a more controlled and more substantial quantity of vitamin D than fortified foods to ensure a healthier lifestyle.
All in all, a well-balanced diet, free from animal products, and rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, can provide sufficient calcium to the human body with none of the health risks associated with the consumption of dairy products.