Does vegan diet lead to calcium deficiency?

Good vegan calcium sources

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Calcium is a mineral that our body needs for many functions. The vast majority of it is found in teeth and bones. Adequate calcium intake is vital when growing up, as children form bone density and develop skeleton. Later on, we need calcium to maintain strong bones. Yet, it has other functions as well. Our heart, nerve system, muscles and digestion need calcium to function properly.

If you are thinking about going vegan, you might be asking yourself, does vegan diet lead to calcium deficiency? Is calcium a concern for vegans?

No, a well-planned vegan diet does not lead to calcium deficiency, because a person can get more than enough calcium from plant-based foods. Even on a poor vegan diet, there are enough calcium supplements to take care of proper calcium intake.

For a long time, it was a common belief that we should drink cow’s milk to ensure enough calcium in the body. Yet, with increasing knowledge about plant-based nutrition, this myth is slowly and steadily dispelling.

And rightly so, as we sure can get enough calcium from a plant-based diet. In any case, there are many vegan food supplements available. That is also the topic of this article, in which you will learn more about how we, as vegans, can ensure adequate calcium intake.

What plant-based foods are high in calcium? 15 good vegan calcium sources

Vegetables and grains are excellent sources of calcium. On the other hand, there is not much calcium in meat and fish. Check which are the best calcium sources in a plant-based diet. How many milligrams of calcium is found in 100 grams of a particular food?

Nuts and seeds

  • Almonds – 252 mg
  • Brazil nuts – 132 mg
  • Chia seeds – 177 mg
  • Sesame seeds – 159 mg

Foods made from almonds (almond butter) and sesame seeds (tahini) are also good sources of calcium.

Green vegetables

  • Cooked spinach – 130 mg
  • Chard – 103 mg
  • Cabbage – 64 mg
  • Broccoli – 58 mg

Calcium is found mainly in leaves.

Legumes

  • Soy – 195 mg
  • Cooked beans in the grain – 140 mg
  • Chickpea – 80 mg

Foods made from soybeans, such as tofu and tempeh, are also rich in calcium.

Fruits

  • Dried apricots – 82 mg
  • Dried figs – 100 mg
  • Papaya – 46 mg
  • Prunes – 43 mg

How much calcium does a vegan need? Vegan calcium intake explained

Now that you know there are many vegan calcium sources to choose from, you might be wondering, how much calcium does a vegan need anyway? Actually, there is no difference between calcium needs for vegans or omnivores.

According to the World Health Organization recommendations, each adult needs between 800 and 1000 milligrams of calcium per day. However, we should take into account certain peculiarities.

Here is a good in-depth read about dietary reference intakes for calcium on the NIH National Library of Medicine.

The need for daily calcium intake increases in some cases, regardless of whether we eat a plant-based diet or not. Studies have shown that vegans are not more susceptible to calcium deficiency. On the contrary, the need for calcium increases if we consume large amounts of meat and salt.

Other factors also affect calcium loss in the body and have nothing to do with the diet.

  • Genes (mainly predisposition to osteoporosis development)
  • Smoking and coffee consumption
  • Physical inactivity
  • Age (calcium needs increase after age 50)
  • Gender (women are more likely to develop osteoporosis, also due to hormonal imbalances)
  • Not enough sun exposure (calcium needs vitamin D for optimal absorption)

Calcium daily requirements also increase during pregnancy and in nursing mothers. Children and teenagers need calcium to build mineral bone density. Around the age of 16, the process of building the skeleton is completed. 3-year-olds need 600 mg of calcium per day, and 8-year-olds need 900 mg of calcium per day.

To learn more about calcium intake in adults, I suggest you read the study about global dietary calcium intake among adults, posted on the NIH National Library of Medicine.

Vegan calcium vs dairy

When I say vegan calcium, I mean calcium from plant-based sources. To set the record straight it is best to make a comparison (in order) to find out if it is true that milk and milk products contain much more calcium than plant sources.

FoodCalcium (mg/100 g)
Parmesan cheese1107
Semi-fat cheese698
Almonds252
Soy195
Chia seeds177
Cooked beans in the grain140
Brazil nuts132
Full-fat milk120
Full-fat yogurt 120
Eggs120
Vegan calcium vs dairy

As you can see, almonds, soy, beans, and brazil nuts have more calcium than whole milk and yogurt. Otherwise, the cheese is the richest in calcium. That doesn’t mean that plant sources don’t contain enough calcium. On contrary, plants have enough calcium to fulfill the RDA.

There is an important aspect you need to take into consideration when comparing vegan calcium vs. dairy. Calcium from plant sources delivers better absorption in the body, as animal proteins from milk and dairy products leach calcium from the bones.

In addition, you can replace dairy milk with plant-based “milks”, many of which have added calcium. These are calcium fortified plant-based options, including yogurts, breads, tortillas, crackers, etc. Soy and rice drinks are most often fortified with calcium. One cup of plant-based milk (240 ml) contains 200 to 300 mg calcium.

Is it better to get calcium from food or supplements?

We live in busy times and often many of us don’t have time to consume proper foods or the right amounts to fulfill all our nutritional needs. From the convenience point of view some of you might ask, is it better to get calcium from food or supplements?

Ideally, we would meet daily calcium needs only with the food we eat as food sources are best recognized by our body, absorbed, and used for all bodily functions. Getting minerals and vitamins from food sources is always a better option due to better indigestion.

However, some food sources are high in calcium, but have low absorbability. It means that your body can’t absorb calcium well. Calcium absorption is mainly reduced by two acids – oxalic acid and phytic acid. They reduce calcium retention, so the mineral is not being fully absorbed.

Leafy greens are high in oxalic acid. Especially spinach, chard, rhubarb and endive. We can find phytic acids in nuts, seeds and grains. Yet, plenty of plant-based foods are rich in calcium and are low in oxalic acid.

Here is a study about oxalate content of foods which I suggest you take a look at if you want to dig deeper.

The most bioavailable source are almonds, followed by dried fruit, especially dried apricots. If you eat 30 g of dried apricots, you have already met your daily calcium intake. But some caution is necessary because dried fruits contain a lot of natural sugar, which is not the best for our teeth’ health.

Furthermore, some greens are low-oxalate and rich in calcium, such as cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, collard greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens.

Are calcium supplements vegan?

As a busy vegan, you would of course want to consume vegan calcium supplements. But are calcium supplements vegan?

Not all calcium supplements are vegan. How to choose and what to look for when buying calcium supplements?

Most supplements on the market contain synthetically obtained calcium produced in laboratories. Nevertheless, it still is a good choice, as synthetically derived calcium is well-absorbed in the body, with which you can meet the daily needs of this mineral.

Calcium supplements can have different calcium compounds such as calcium citrate, calcium malate, calcium carbonate, calcium acetate, etc. All compounds must retain elemental calcium, which binds in the body with amino acids.

Regardless of the calcium compounds, you should pay attention to the following factors if you are looking for a vegan supplement:

  • The manufacturer must have a vegan certificate. Check the labelling.
  • Some supplements may contain lactose.
  • When buying calcium in capsules, check whether they are made from cellulose or from animal gelatin.
  • When buying calcium in powder or tablets, check that there are no added substances of animal origin, such as fillers, binders, dyes, additives, etc.
  • Some supplements may contain so-called natural calcium obtained from eggshells or the skeletons of some animals, such as turtles.

There are also dietary supplements that contain organic plant-based calcium, which is obtained from algae, most often from the red marine algae Lithothamnion calcareum. You will recognize them by the name calcium Aquamin.

Do calcium supplements improve bone density?

Children need calcium to build strong bones, while adults need calcium to maintain strong bone mass. We built up bones by the end of adolescence. After that we have to maintain optimal bone density and prevent the calcium loss from the bones. One way to do this is to ensure adequate calcium intake on a daily basis.

Calcium itself does not improve bone density but maintains it. 99% of the calcium in the body is stored in bones and teeth. Therefore, supplements prevent calcium from being depleted from the bones.

Calcium supplements can postpone osteoporosis to later periods if this disease ever develops. Supplementation also cannot prevent bone fractures, but prevents calcium deficiency, which is responsible for gradual loss of bone density and weak bones.

Common side effects of calcium supplements?

Although food supplements are meant to supplement nutritional gaps in our diet, they are not for everyone. We still have to know about common side effects of calcium supplements and the possible risks related to them.

It’s important not to take too much calcium, as this can create new problems related to excess calcium in the body. Stay close to the RDA of calcium for your age. Combined calcium intake from food and supplements should not exceed 1300 milligrams per day.

Consult your doctor if you are taking any medications. Calcium can interact with some prescription medicines, such as antibiotics, bisphosphonates and high blood pressure medications.

Calcium can build up to unhealthy levels in the bloodstream if you don’t pay enough attention to your total calcium intake. This condition is called hypercalcemia. It can increase your risk of kidney stones and heart problems.

Should vegans supplement calcium?

Supplementing calcium is a good choice if you do not eat enough calcium-rich foods or drink calcium-fortified drinks. Then it is necessary to consider whether there are any of the factors listed above that increase the need for calcium intake, or because of them, calcium is depleted faster in the body.

You can calculate how much calcium you consume with food in a day and then check if you meet the recommended daily intake. You can also get a lab test and check the level of calcium in your blood, which you can use to determine whether you have a calcium deficiency.

If you are still concerned, here is a good read from John Hopkins Medicine about Calcium Supplements.

Do vegan calcium supplements work?

Yes, vegan calcium supplements can be as effective as non-vegan. The important thing is that they don’t contain any impurities that put additional burden on the liver. Another important thing is that it has enough elemental calcium, regardless if its synthetical or natural derived calcium.

At the same time, you need to make sure that you have sufficient vitamin D levels in your body, either from a supplement or natural sunlight. The status of vitamin D strongly influences calcium absorption. Without vitamin D, only 10 to 15% calcium is absorbed in the body, whether you take it from supplements or food.

Otherwise, both nutrients are crucial for bone and muscle health. Some food supplements already include a combination of vitamin D and calcium, but you can also take them separately. Just make sure that the vitamin D is sourced from plants and not from animal lanolin.

Are plant-based calcium supplements better?

Elemental calcium is the amount of calcium that is actually used by the body. Calcium carbonate contains around 40% of elemental calcium. In second place with 30% is plant-based calcium from algae. Third place goes to calcium citrate with 20% elemental calcium. Other calcium compounds have lower levels of elemental calcium.

So, what exactly does that mean? Are plant-based calcium supplements better?

We can say that plant-based calcium supplements have the highest values of elemental calcium, since calcium carbonate is not suitable for oral consumption. We can only use it locally, for example, to rub it into the skin.

Plant-based calcium is also better recognized in the body than calcium supplements sourced from animal ingredients (eggshells, animal skeletons) because animal proteins leach calcium from your bones.

Another advantage of plant-based calcium supplements is that red algae extracts are also rich in other trace minerals (magnesium, silica, selenium, chromium, etc.), which increase calcium absorption. They also offer other health benefits, including muscle and joint health. The group of trace minerals holistically supports healthier bones.

Dr. Neal Barnard talks about building strong bones on a plant-based diet

Conclusion

When on a well-balanced, preferably wholefood vegan diet with enough calorie intake, you shouldn’t be worried about meeting your RDA for calcium, because chances are pretty good that you get enough of that important mineral.

When your lifestyle doesn’t allow you to eat nutrient-rich vegan diet due to lack of time, it is perfectly acceptable to consider taking calcium supplements from which, many are vegan. Or another option is choosing food brands that fortify their foods with calcium, for example some of the plant-based “milks”.

Whichever choice you make, you should be covered with your bodily calcium needs.

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Gregory Knox
Gregory Knox

I'm Gregory, a father and animal lover. Ex vegan store owner and a foodie. My fascination in researching and pushing the limits of vegan nutrition takes me to new heights.