Since childhood, we’ve been told that a glass of milk will give you strong bones. But, little did we know that that seemingly innocent glass of milk comes at a pretty high cost. With the dairy industry pushing promotional propaganda our way claiming that dairy is the best source of calcium, we were left none the wiser until the rise of veganism.
While obtaining plant-based calcium is entirely possible, it’s still considered an area of controversy. One of the most asked questions about vegans is how do vegans get enough calcium? Due to heavy advertising by the dairy industry, it is firmly believed by members of society that not consuming dairy will result in a calcium deficiency. However, whether dairy consumption is linked to strong bones is still up for debate. Studies show that the highly acidic nature of dairy and other animal products may break down your bones and lead to even more health problems. Fortunately, calcium is abundant in many plant-based foods and they’re much easier to absorb calcium from compared to dairy products. They also contain other minerals and nutrients such as Vitamin D, which is beneficial for facilitating calcium absorption, and other vital functions in the body. Moreover, plant-based sources of calcium may even protect against the breakdown of your bones and also protect the body from inflammation.
In this guide, we’ll address the following topics:
- What Is Calcium
- The Importance of Calcium
- How Much Calcium Do You Need
- Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency
- Vegan Sources of Calcium
- Calcium & Vitamin D
What is Calcium?
Calcium is the most common mineral found in our bodies and it is crucial for many bodily functions. Around 99% of calcium is stored in your bones and teeth. The remaining amount can be found in the blood, muscle and other tissues. This amount in the blood never varies and is regulated and maintained consistently by the body. Instead, the stored calcium in your bones and teeth acts as a reservoir that the body dips into when there is not enough of it in the blood.
Our bodies obtain the required calcium in two ways. The first way is by consuming foods rich in calcium or taking calcium supplements. The second way is by pulling from the calcium stores in your bones and teeth. In a perfect world, the borrowed calcium would be replenished at a later time, but that’s not always the case. Constant borrowing of calcium from bones and teeth can lead to a deficiency in calcium, which is detrimental to your health and results in illnesses such as osteoporosis.
Why Do We Need Calcium?
For Your Bones
One of the most commonly known facts about calcium is its importance to bone health. Calcium is crucial for bone growth, development, maintenance, and overall structure. An individual typically achieves peak bone mass at the age of 30, after this point, bone density decreases due to a constant need for stored calcium for bodily functions.
For Your Muscles
Calcium is vital for muscle contractions such as your heartbeat. The existence of calcium within you signals muscle fibers to start contracting when a muscle is stimulated.
For Other Bodily Functions
Calcium is also important for blood clotting and the dilation and contraction of blood vessels. It also takes on the role of messenger between cells and tissues and relay nerve signals throughout your body. It even plays a part in the secretion of hormones, encouraging a healthy sleep cycle and promote hair and nail health. Calcium is also beneficial for preventing hypertension and even helps with managing stress.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium differs based on your age. The amount of calcium you need increases the older you get. It’s recommended that women of ages 19 through 50 consume a total of 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Upon turning 51, women should increase their intake of calcium to 1,200 mg per day. On the other hand, men of ages 19 through 70 are to consume 1,000 mg per day and only need to increase their intake of calcium to 1,200 mg at the ages of 71 and onwards.
What Happens When You Don’t Have Enough Calcium?
Calcium deficiency occurs when there is an inadequate amount of calcium in the body. There are two types of calcium deficiency:
- Dietary Calcium Deficiency: This condition refers to when you do not eat enough calcium-rich foods thus leading to diminishing stores of the nutrient in your bones. It also leads to osteoporosis, which is when bones become weak and brittle.
- Hypocalcemia: Hypocalcemia occurs when calcium levels in the blood are lower than average. A deficiency in magnesium or vitamin D has been associated with most diagnoses of hypocalcemia. Long-term effects include dental changes, alterations in the brain, cataracts, and osteoporosis.
Five Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency
- Muscle Cramps: One of the earliest signs of calcium deficiency is muscle cramps, aches, and spasms. Pain can occur in the arms and thighs, especially in the underarms, when moving and walking around. A calcium deficiency can also result in tingling and numb hands, arms, feet, legs and around the mouth. However, these sensations may be symptoms of a more serious deficiency.
- Fatigue: A deficiency in calcium can also result in insomnia or sleepiness thus causing extreme fatigue, lethargy, feelings of sluggishness and a general lack of energy. Fatigue brought on by a lack of calcium can also cause dizziness, lightheadedness, trouble concentrating and remembering, and confusion.
- Dry Skin & Brittle Nails: A persistent lack of calcium causes the skin to become dry and itchy. Many studies show that there is a link between hypercalcemia and eczema and psoriasis. It may also lead to dry and brittle nails.
- Dental Problems: When the body doesn’t have enough calcium, it will draw from the stores of calcium in the bones and teeth. As a result, it can cause dental issues such as weak roots, brittle teeth, irritated gums. and tooth decay.
- Osteopenia & Osteoporosis: Osteopenia refers to a reduction in the mineral density of bones and it could result in osteoporosis, otherwise known as porous bones, which makes bones thinner and brittle thus making them prone to fractures. Keep in mind that these conditions due
13 Vegan Sources of Calcium
Since your body doesn’t produce calcium on its own, it’s important to obtain the calcium you need through your diet. These plant-based foods are a few examples of some excellent sources of calcium that also come with various other nutrients such as iron and magnesium.
- Leafy greens: For example, one cup of cooked collard greens contains 268 mg of calcium. Kale is also a good source of calcium with 94 mg of the nutrient per cup.
- Broccoli: One cup of cooked broccoli contains 180 mg of calcium and one raw stalk contains 115 mg.
- Fortified plant-based milk: Plant milks such as soy, almond, hemp, oat or cashew are often fortified using soil-based calcium and can contain over 30 percent of your daily calcium requirement.
- White beans: Two cups of white beans contain 382 mg of calcium and also comes with a heaping dose of iron.
- Ragi: Otherwise known as finger millet, this wonder grain contains 334 mg calcium per 100g
- Fennel: Just one tablespoon is packed with 50 mg of calcium
- Chia Seeds: Around two tablespoons of chia seeds contain 177 mg of calcium, which amounts to 18 percent of daily requirement! It’ll also help strengthen your nails, hair, and muscles.
- Sesame Seeds: Two ounces of sesame seeds equates to 560 mg of calcium.
- Almond Butter: Two tablespoons of almond butter provide 111 mg of calcium. It’s also comes packed with a healthy dose of protein!
- Oats: Half of a cup of dry oats contain 200 mg of calcium. You can cook it up with some almond milk to add another 300 to 400 mg of calcium.
- Okra: One cup of cooked okra amounts to 124 mg of calcium, not to mention that it’s also rich in other nutrients and minerals including magnesium and vitamin C and A.
- Fortified Orange Juice: While a cup of raw navel oranges only provides 71 mg of calcium, fortified orange juice can give you up to 500 mg of calcium per cup. That’s 50 percent of your daily calcium needs!
- Flaxseeds: Three tablespoons of ground flaxseeds can provide you with approximately 50 mg of calcium. Simply add it to your smoothies, oatmeal, salads, sandwiches or even when baking.
Calcium & Vitamin D
We’ve established that calcium is important for healthy bones but it can all become moot if you have a deficiency in vitamin D. These two nutrients have a mutually dependent relationship and they typically work in conjecture to protect your bones.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium more effectively. When calcium levels in the blood begin to diminish, the body will convert vitamin D into its active form called calcitriol, which travels to the intestines to encourage the absorption of calcium into the blood, and to the kidneys, which help reduce the loss of calcium through excretion. A deficiency in vitamin D could lead to hypocalcemia.
Vitamin D can be obtained from certain fortified plant milks, orange juice, cereals, and supplements as well as sunshine, thus earning it the moniker, “sunshine vitamin.” It’s said that exposing your arms and face for 15 to 20 minutes of sunshine a day will help your skin produce enough Vitamin D.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to ensure that you obtain enough dietary calcium throughout your life. It’s crucial for various bodily processes such as maintaining healthy bones and regulating your heartbeat. And, despite popular belief, consuming dairy products are not the only way to obtain this essential nutrient. A well-balanced, plant-based diet can easily meet all your calcium requirements. They even contain other minerals and nutrients that promote both bone and heart health. Just make sure you don’t forget about getting enough vitamin D to encourage better calcium absorption!