Plant-based calcium sources and why you don’t need milk for strong bones

I remember being told over and over as a kid that drinking milk gives you strong bones. I recall teachers handing out bottles of milk to every child as part of the school milk program, the practice of which still continues in schools around the world today. The “health” benefits of consuming cow’s milk are still heavily and widely promoted everywhere you look, thanks to the PR machine that is the dairy industry. Although it’s true that it contains a lot of the chalky stuff, consuming cow’s milk actually makes our bones weaker!

One of the many other things that the dairy industry doesn’t tell us is that cow’s milk is actually bad for our health, unless you’re a baby cow that is. What they also hide from public view are the horrific horror stories of life (well, more like slavery and death) on dairy farms.

I’ll go into more detail in a future post about why dairy is so scary but, in the meantime, if you’re reading this because you’ve ditched dairy but you’re worried about getting enough calcium in your diet, don’t panic!

In this second post of the Nutrition Essential series, I’ll talk about the many plant-based sources of calcium that are much healthier than lapping up the lactose dense liquid that wasn’t meant for us in the first place.

What is calcium?

Calcium is a mineral that is vital to bone health. This mineral is one of the main components that makes up our bones and teeth. Our bodies don’t produce so we need to consume enough calcium in our diet in order to keep our bones strong and our blood flowing.

To help our body absorb calcium, we also need regular top-ups of vitamin D. The human body produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Fifteen minutes exposure of your face and hands to the summer sun at least twice a week is recommended.

Why is calcium so important to health?

If your calcium intake is too low your body will start to use the calcium stored in your bones. Over time, this can lead to osteoporosis and a weakening of the bones making you susceptible to fractures. It’s essential, especially early in life, to get enough calcium to aid growth. A lack of calcium and vitamin D in children can lead to rickets, a condition that affects bone development.

Aside from bone health, calcium plays an important role in other bodily functions as well. Without calcium our blood wouldn’t circulate properly and our muscles and nervous system couldn’t function correctly.

Needed for:

  • Blood clotting
  • Bone and teeth formation
  • Muscle contraction
  • Nervous system function

Tips for calcium intake on a plant-based diet

To avoid health problems, especially as you get older, it’s important to make sure you consume enough calcium-rich foods whichever age you are. The many delicious and healthy plant-based sources of calcium will provide your body with the right amount you need, so you can safely ditch the dairy without worry.

Calcium can be found in a wide variety of greens, nuts and seeds. You can also find lots of calcium-fortified products in your local supermarket such as plant-based milks, fruit juices and energy bars (just check the label or packaging lists calcium as an ingredient).

Although calcium supplements are available, it really isn’t necessary to supplement as long as your vegan diet is varied and balanced. In fact, consuming too much calcium could also have adverse effects on your health. So, only consider taking supplements if your diet is that unhealthy that you’re living off chips and sugary vegan junk food.

Plant-based sources of calcium include:

  • Almond, rice, coconut and hemp milks
  • Green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale, turnip greens, swiss chard)
  • Tofu (made with calcium sulfate) or tempeh
  • Tahini
  • Seeds such as sesame and chia
  • Black beans
  • Figs

It’s important to note that even if some foods are high in calcium, other natural substances that are also present may inhibit the calcium absorption into the body. Therefore, not all calcium rich food sources are equally effective. As long as you’re eating a balanced diet full of fresh vegetables, fruit and nuts you shouldn’t have any problems getting enough calcium for your body and bones to stay healthy.

Since I’ve been following a plant-based diet I’ve really learned to love and appreciate my greens. My husband and I have become a little obsessed with broccoli for example, and I often catch him stealing a floret from the refrigerator as a snack.

Are you making sure you eat a whole food diet with lots of fresh, leafy greens, nuts and beans? Let us know what your favourite plant-based sources of calcium are in the comments below. If’ you’d like to keep reading about other essential nutrients our body needs to stay healthy, take a look at the first post in this series all about vitamin B12.

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