Calcium Rich Foods on a Plant-Based Diet

by | Apr 8, 2021

Considering a plant-based diet but concerned about finding enough calcium rich foods? Don’t be! There are plenty of dairy-free calcium sources that can help you meet calcium needs on a vegan diet.

Calcium is often associated with dairy , but a plant-based diet can also provide a variety of calcium rich foods.

Understanding where calcium is found in plants can help you make sure you include this important nutrient, no dairy needed.

What does calcium do?

Calcium tends to get a lot of attention because of its role in bone health. In fact, all but 1% of the calcium in the human body is stored in the bones and teeth.

It’s the most abundant mineral in your body.

While it’s true that we need calcium to build and maintain a strong skeleton, that’s not all that this essential mineral does.

Calcium is also involved in blood clotting, allowing your muscles to contract, dilating your blood vessels, secreting hormones, communication between your cells, and coordinating your heart function.

How much calcium you need

To plan for a plant-based diet that meets calcium needs, it helps to have an idea of how needs change throughout life.

Here are daily needs for calcium based on Adequate Intake (AI) and Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA):

AgeFemaleMalePregnant or Lactating
0-6 months200 mg 200 mg
7-12 months260 mg260 mg
1-3 years700 mg700 mg
4-8 years1000 mg1000 mg
9-13 years1300 mg1300 mg
14-18 years1300 mg1300 mg1300 mg
19-50 years1000 mg1000 mg1000 mg
51-70 years1200 mg1000 mg
>70 years1200 mg1200 mg

With that being said, some health experts think the calcium needs above have been overestimated for most adults.

In fact, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that 1200 mg per day is probably overkill.

We’re likely just fine aiming for the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 500 mg per day, or the 700 mg per day goal accepted in the United Kingdom.

So if that’s the case, it becomes even easier to meet calcium needs on a totally plant-based diet.

Calcium in dairy products

Most of us were taught, from a young age, that calcium comes from gulping a big glass of cow’s milk at every opportunity.

Dairy is certainly one source of calcium, but it’s not the only — or the best — one out there.

In fact, chronic dairy consumption (especially high-fat dairy) has been shown to increase risk for breast and prostate cancer.

Plus, the calcium in dairy products comes with unwanted nutrients like saturated fat, as well as cow reproductive hormones and, often, residues of antibiotics used in industrial animal farming.

Indeed, dairy is the perfect food and source of calcium… for baby cows.

Plant-based calcium rich foods

Rest assured that you can find calcium rich foods on a plant-based diet.

Even better, calcium from plants like certain dark leafy greens may be absorbed 15-30% better than calcium from dairy.

Plus, this way it comes packaged with other healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamin K, iron, folate, iron, and antioxidants.

But keep in mind that some calcium rich leafy greens are also high in compounds called oxalates, which may reduce absorption of it and other minerals. The biggest culprits are spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens.

However, this doesn’t mean you should avoid these.

It just means it’s a good idea to incorporate low-oxalate greens in your diet as well like bok choy, kale, and broccoli in your calcium foods rotation.

Some other plant sources of calcium include:

  • Tofu, calcium-set: 861 mg in 1/2 cup
  • Tempeh: 184 mg in 1 cup
  • White beans: 80 mg in 1/2 cup cooked
  • Black beans: 45 mg in 1/2 cup canned
  • Chickpeas: 50 mg in 1/2 cup canned
  • Almonds: 80 mg in 30 grams
  • Tahini: 130 mg in 2 Tablespoons
  • Chia seeds: 180 mg in 2.5 Tablespoons
  • Oranges: 60 mg in 1 medium fruit
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk: 300 mg in 1 cup
  • Kale: 180 mg in 1/2 cup cooked

There’s no need to be concerned about getting calcium on a plant-based diet. Calcium rich foods come in many plant forms and can help you meet calcium needs on a vegan diet.

Share your thoughts: What dairy-free calcium sources do you enjoy already? Which new ones can you add to your diet?

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Lauren has been a registered dietitian since 2010, with extensive experience in public health and plant-based nutrition. Through writing and speaking, she specializes in normalizing and elevating the plant-based (vegan, vegetarian, and the like) lifestyle.

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