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Calcium is something that seems to be synonymous with dairy products. We didn’t have the ‘Got milk?’ campaign in the UK, but we did have to drink room temperature (bleugh) milk at breaktime because it was full of good goodness and NECESSARY to help us grow big and strong.
I was 5’8″ by the time I was 11. I should have been automatically excluded.
(I abruptly topped growing at 11, btw. My mum was extremely relieved. She thought was going to keep going indefinitely).
As it turns out, dairy isn’t the only source of dietary calcium. Hell, it’s not even the best, and it’s CERTAINLY not the healthiest. Let’s learn!
What is calcium?
Calcium is an alkaline earth metal and is the third most abundant metal, narrowly beaten by iron and aluminium. That’s lucky, because humans need quite a lot to allow their bodies to function effectively.
Why do we need calcium?
Our bodies use calcium for several different things:
- To aid the muscular system (it regulates the contraction of muscles)
- Nerve signal transmission
- To aid the circulatory system (helps with blood clotting)
- Builds bones (we already knew that one)
How much calcium do we need?
|Male (yrs)||Calcium required (mg)||Female (yrs)||Calcium required (mg)|
Our body may not necessarily need these amounts, but these are the quantities of calcium required for our body to be able to absorb what we need. Our body can’t extract every ion of calcium from the food we eat – a lot is excreted.
Where do meat-eaters get calcium?
It’s generally assumed that meat-eaters get all the calcium they need from animal products – meat and dairy are regularly cited as being the best sources for getting calcium.
And you know what? They are. Cheese is a great source of calcium, especially for kids because it tastes good.
HOWEVER, there are other health risks associated with dairy products. Cheese is packed full of saturated fat, for example, so the health benefits are outweighed by the detriments.
Also, never forget: dairy is scary. Click the link to find out why.
Where can vegans get calcium?
Oh you know…tofu, dried fruits, fortified milks, artichokes, asparagus, chickpeas, kale, oranges, blackberries, cinnamon, broccoli, etc. etc. etc.
Note that all of these foods are low in saturated fat but high in other micronutrients.
Here’s a handy table I made:
Please note that these numbers were thoroughly researched BUT I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist, so if you’re worried about your calcium levels get your doctor to refer you to a dietician.
So, from the table we can see that the easiest way to get the calcium you need daily is to drink fortified plant milk or eat fortified plant yoghurt. A smoothie made with soya milk and a couple of lattes spread over the day will give you all the calcium that you need, and adding in foods like beans and chickpeas will provide a bit of extra.
Should vegans take a calcium supplement?
No (not a calcium supplement anyway) unless prescribed by a doctor.
If you absorb too much calcium it can lead to calcium building up around the heart, which, if you couldn’t guess, ain’t good.
A lot of vegan multivitamins do contain calcium, but usually only about 25% of the RDA.
What vegans should be supplementing to help absorb dietary iron is vitamin D. In fact, many dieticians recommend that everybody (especially in winter) should be taking a vitamin supplement.
Once upon a time it was only possible to get the less efficient vitamin D2 in a vegan-friendly supplement, but thanks to algae, we can now get a vegan D3 supplement. D3 used to be harvested from sheep’s skin. Ew.
Some foods inhibit the absorption of calcium, so avoid eating them whilst you’re drinking your latte or smoothie:
- Spinach – spinach is super good for you and high in calcium, but it inhibits absorption. I’d better stop adding it to smoothies then.
- Beans – soak them to reduce the oxalic acid which reduces absorption
- Sweet potatoes and rhubarb.
I’m not advising that you don’t eat these foods, just leave it until an hour or so before or after eating calcium rich foods.
Signs of calcium deficiency (hypocalcemia)
- Confusion/memory loss
- Muscle spasms
- Numbness in extremities
- Muscles cramps
- Weak/brittle nails
- Weak bones that are easy to fracture
Calcium is fairly easy to come by on a vegan diet, provided you buy fortified plant milks.
Be sure to shake your cartons before using them because the calcium sediments tend to settle on the bottom.
A lot of vegans are trying to be more low waste and make their own plant milks from oats and things. Just please be aware that homemade milks won’t be fortified. And I’d advise against fortifying them yourself unless you’re a dietician or scientist.