Written by Bonnie Kumer, R.D. and Nicole Hambleton   

No bones about it, vegetarians can maintain healthy calcium stores on a dairy-free diet. Eating a calcium-rich, vegan diet just takes a little knowledge about calcium requirements, an understanding of calcium absorption, avoidance of calcium thieves and a bit of menu planning.

How much calcium do we really need? The amount of calcium recommended as the RNI (Required Nutritional Intake):

Women 1000 mg/day
Women 50+ 1200-1500 mg/day
Men 1000 mg/day

These requirements take into account the negative effects of protein and sodium on calcium balance.

Calcium absorption levels of plant foods

Deep green vegetables
(broccoli, Brussel sprouts, Chinese and green cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, etc.)
50-70%
Milk 32%
Almonds 21%
Beans 17%
Spinach, cooked 5%

Studies have shown that the calcium in kale, bok choy, broccoli and other green leafy vegetables as well as tofu (set with calcium sulfate or calcium chloride) is absorbed at a rate equal to or greater than milk.

The role of protein

Animal protein (beef, poultry, fish, and egg) causes calcium to be excreted in the urine. A person following a diet that does not include animal protein may have lowered calcium needs. For example, a vegan consuming a low protein, low sodium diet may only need as little as 500 mg of calcium daily. A person consuming a high protein, high sodium diet may need as much as 2000 mg of calcium per day!

Sodium

Did you know that 1000 mg of sodium causes 20 to 40 mg of calcium to be lost in the urine? At first this amount may seem small, but when you consider that the average person consumes 3000-4000 mg of sodium daily it adds up. On average we only need about 1800 mg of sodium per day. To compensate for this calcium loss one can either decrease sodium intake by 50% or increase calcium consumption by 900 mg. We suggest you cut back the salt, because most of it is coming from nutrient deprived processed foods anyway.

Don’t get “a-salted”

Believe it or not, all this sodium isn’t coming from the salt shaker! In fact, only 15% of daily sodium consumption comes from what you add at the table or what you consume in salty junk food (potato chips, french fries). The real villain lurks in processed foods. Consider the following so called “healthy” vegetarian foods.

Sodium in processed foods

Type of Food

Mg/ Sodium

LUNCH:

2 Yves jumbo veggie dogs 960
85 grams Soya Kaas tofu cheese 720
Mustard,ketchup,pickle 1200
Nile Spice couscous soup 590

DINNER:

President’s Choice frozen tofu ravioli 920

SNACK:

1/2 cup salsa 740
2 oz corn chips 465
 

GRAND TOTAL:

5595 mg

Go for calcium quality not quantity

Studies have shown that the calcium in kale, bok choy, broccoli and other leafy greens, as well as tofu processed with calcium sulfate or calcium chloride, is absorbed at a rate equal to or greater than milk.

High oxalate vegetables such as spinach, swiss chard and rhubarb decrease calcium absorption. However, these vegetables are the exception rather than the norm. Common beans such as kidney, chick pea and pinto contain oxalate and phytates, which interfere with calcium absorption. In fact, the amount of calcium absorbed from these beans is 1/2 that of green leafy vegetables. Although beans may be low in calcium, they are still a great source of protein, zinc, iron and fibre.

If you want to meet your calcium requirements, why not chew on some of the recommendations in the “1000 mg Calcium Meal Plan” on this page?

Calcium Crusaders

The items listed below are especially valuable sources for absorbable calcium.

Almonds 1/3 cup 50 mg
Blackstrap molasses 1 Tbsp 137 mg
Hijiki, dry 1/4 cup 162 mg
Hummus 1/2 cup 81 mg
Quinoa 1 cup 50 mg
Tahini 2 Tbsp. 128 mg
Tofu w/o calcium (soft) 1/4 cup 67mg
Tofu with calcium 1/4 cup 430 mg
Wakame, dry 1/4 cup 104 mg

Milk alternatives

Normally 4 to 6 servings per day of any of the following would supply an adequate amount of calcium. However, youths and pregnant or lactating women should eat 6 to 8 servings to be on the safe side.

SEEDS AND NUTS:

  • Tahini, 2 tbsp.
  • Almond butter, 3 tbsp
  • Almonds 1/3 cup

VEGETABLES:

  • Green vegetables (kale, collards, sui choy, bok choy, okra, broccoli) cooked, 1 cup
  • Greens (kale, sui choy, broccoli), raw 2 cups
  • Seaweed (hijiki) dried, 1/4 cup

LEGUME FOODS:

  • Tofu with calcium, 1/4 cup
  • Legumes (soybeans, white beans, great northern, navy, black turtle), cooked, 1 cup (chickpeas, pinto, butter,kidney) 1-1/2 cups

OTHER FOODS:

  • Blackstrap molasses, 1 tbsp
  • Figs, dried 5
  • Calcium-fortified foods & beverages providing 150 mg calcium per serving.

Supplements & vitamin D

Supplements should be just that; a supplement to a calcium-rich menu plan. If you are concerned about your calcium intake, top-up with calcium carbonate (250-500 mg). Vitamin D produced in the body by exposure to sunlight is a necessary partner for calcium absorption.

Note: Sunscreen (spf 15+) will block vitamin D production. No fun in the sun? We suggest a multivitamin containing 400-800 I.U. vitamin D. Remember high levels of vitamin D are toxic. Don’t over do it.

Menu Plan

BREAKFAST

  • 2 slices whole grain bread with almond butter
  • 1 medium orange

LUNCH

  • 1 whole wheat pita with black bean hummus
  • Kale salad with tahini dressing

SNACK

  • Whole grain muffin with blackstrap molasses

DINNER

  • Tofu (extra firm/set with calcium),bok choy, broccoli and almonds stir fry
  • Brown rice

SNACK

  • Tofu cheese and whole wheat crackers
  • 3 figs

REFERENCES:

Melina,V., Davis,V., & Harrison,V. Becoming Vegetarian. MacMillan Canada, 1994.

Messina, M., Messina, V. The Dieticians Guide to Vegetarian Diets. Aspen Publishers, 1996.

Report on the Consensus Panel (NIH CDC) 1994. National Institutes of Health Concensus Development. Conference on Optimal Calcium Intake, June 6-8, 1994.1000 Mg Calcium Meal Plan


From May/June ’97 Lifelines