CALCIUM; Did you know more than 95% of the calcium in our bodies is stored within our bones? This is why blood tests for calcium are an unreliable method of detecting how good our bone health is.
It's important to remember nutrients often do not work in isolation - and the relationship between vitamin D and calcium is a great example. This explains why many vegan dairy alternatives containing calcium are also fortified with vitamin D.
If you live in the UK or a country a similar distance from the equator it is likely you are not getting enough vitamin D from the sun, so you may need to supplement or make an effort to eat vitamin D fortified foods daily.
If you are concerned visit your GP for a simple blood test to check your levels, but bear in mind levels are naturally lower during the winter months due to the lack of sunshine.
Whilst diet is important, weight bearing exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective methods of improving bone health and reducing the risk of fractures. This includes lifting weights, jogging, hiking, dancing, playing tennis and climbing the stairs.
We need calcium for -
building and maintaining bones and teeth
hormone release, nerve and muscle health
Vitamin D intake is also vital as it aids absorption of calcium in the gut.
The UK guidelines recommend specific dietary intakes of calcium for each stage of development through childhood:
• less than 1 year 525mg daily
• 1-3 years 350mg daily
• 4-6 years 450mg daily
• 7-10 years 550mg daily
• 11-18 years 800mg daily
• 19+ years 700mg daily
For adolescents (11-18 years), cis-females are recommended to take 800mg daily, whereas cis-males should aim for 1000mg. A higher amount is required during adolescence as this is a period of rapid growth and development. Trans-males and females undergoing hormone therapy during this period of life may require additional calcium, so be sure to check with your doctor if your requirements may be higher.
At least 1000mg of calcium daily is required for people who have coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel disease because it is harder for these individuals to absorb calcium through the gut. People who have osteoporosis are also encouraged to aim for 1000mg of calcium daily and so are often advised to supplement in addition to choosing calcium rich sources with each meal.
Post-menopausal women should aim for 1200mg. Breast/chest feeding parents aim for 1250mg.
The easiest way to ensure you're getting enough calcium as a vegan or someone following a plant-based diet is to regularly consume fortified dairy alternatives, cereals and bread products.
As mentioned previously, vitamin D aids absorption of calcium and most dairy alternatives are fortified with both calcium and vitamin D, even more reason to choose these items first and foremost.
Pulses, leafy green veg, nuts, seeds and dried fruit are naturally good sources, but they also have oxalates and phytates which affect absorption. It is impossible to say exactly how much absorption is compromised, so the safest advice is not to rely on these sources solely for your calcium intake. If you tend not to eat dairy alternatives it might be worth considering a vegan multivitamin to support your nutrition.
Some calcium values for plant foods are:
- 1 cup plant milk 240mg
- 120g soya yogurt 150mg
- 200g plain haricot beans 132mg
- 1/2 tin chickpeas 99mg
- 1/2 tin kidney beans 93mg
- 1 medium orange 78mg
- 2 dried figs 62mg
- 80g spring greens 56mg
- 80g broccoli 32mg
It's also worth mentioning that some supermarket vegan cheeses are now being fortified with calcium too, making it easier to reach your recommended daily target.
By our resident registered dietitian: Sam Gould RD PgDip BSc @the.vegan.dietitian.
Langham-New et al (2012), BDA (2017).