Calcium in Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

brown and yellow almond nuts

Dairy-Free Calcium Sources and Nutritional Considerations

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies. It’s mostly found in the bones (skeleton) and teeth.

Vegans are less likely than vegetarians and meat-eaters to meet the North American recommendations for calcium. How much calcium vegans need compared to milk-drinkers isn’t clear. It seems that as long as vegans get enough of other nutrients, like vitamin D and protein, they are not more likely to break bones.

Calcium Sources

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. When most people think of calcium, they think of milk and dairy products. But calcium is found in plant foods too. It’s not necessary to drink milk to get enough calcium in the diet.

Non-Dairy Vegan Calcium Sources

Most foods have some calcium in them. Calcium from some sources is absorbed better than others. Certain vegetables are high in oxalate, which lowers the absorption of calcium. Here are some of the best sources of vegan calcium:

  • Low-oxalate leafy green vegetables (per 1/2 cup/125 ml cooked): broccoli (36 mg), Chinese cabbage/bok choy (84 mg), collard greens (141 mg) and kale (47 mg)
  • Blackstrap molasses (137 mg per tablespoon/15 ml)
  • Fortified fruit juice (371 mg per cup)
  • Fresh orange (medium-sized)(52 mg)
  • Calcium-set tofu (130 mg per 1/2 cup/125 ml)
  • Almonds (92 mg per 1/4 cup)
  • Beans (1/2 cup/125 ml): baked beans (64 mg); chickpeas (42 mg)
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk (choose those fortified with calcium citrate or calcium carbonate rather than tricalcium phosphate, which has lower absorption): varies; about 300 mg per cup
  • Sesame seeds (89 mg per tablespoon) and tahini paste (64 mg per tablespoon)
  • Figs (68 mg per 5 small figs)
  • Rhubarb (174 mg per 1/2 cup cooked stems)
  • High-oxalate vegetables (high in calcium but absorption is limited): rhubarb (175 mg per 1/2 cup/125 ml); spinach (138 mg per 1/2 cup/125 ml)

Lacto-Vegetarian Dairy Calcium Sources

Vegetarians who do drink milk don’t tend to have trouble meeting the recommended daily calcium intake. Dairy products are high in calcium. Here are some high dairy calcium sources for lacto-vegetarians (vegetarians who eat dairy products).

  • Milk (300 mg per cup)
  • Yogurt (345 mg per cup)
  • Cheese (204 mg per ounce/30 grams)
  • Cottage cheese (155 mg per cup)

Calcium Supplements

The body can only absorb about 400 mg calcium at a time, so avoid higher dose supplements. Take calcium supplements with a meal to boost absorption.

Dietary Calcium Needs

The amount of calcium a person needs is influenced by age, where that person lives, their genetic background and culture/lifestyle.

In North America, the daily calcium recommendation for most adults is 1000 mg. Older adults (over age 50) need 1200 mg per day, and teens and women who are pregnant or lactating (breastfeeding) need 1300 mg per day.

The total diet impacts how much calcium is required for an individual. Some foods tend to increase calcium loss from the body.

Factors that may increase calcium loss include:

  • Eating high amounts of animal protein
  • A low calcium-to-protein ratio
  • High salt in the diet
  • Low vitamin D in the diet or from sunshine
  • Calcium’s Role in the Body
  • Calcium contributes to bone and tooth health. It also helps the heart muscle function and helps the nerves to send signals to other nerves. Calcium in the diet is necessary for life.

Calcium Deficiency in Vegans

While lacto-vegetarians who drink milk are just as likely as omnivores to reach the daily target for calcium, vegans may fall short of the North American recommendations. Broken bones and osteoporosis are two serious results of low bone density, which may stem from a calcium deficiency. Some studies show vegans are more likely to break bones, while others do not.