If you are thinking of giving up meat and dairy but wondering how you would survive without the calcium, or want to better communicate with your loved ones about plant based sources of calcium, this is for you.
So Just What is Calcium?
Calcium is a mineral that is essential to human life. Calcium helps us build and maintain bones, contract muscles, helps nerves communicate, and helps our blood clot when we have an injury. Every day we lose calcium through our sweat, urine, feces, hair, skin, and nails and we must replenish our calcium supply through our food. Eating plants, we take in this essential mineral and replenish our bodies’ stores.
Where Does Calcium Come From?
As a mineral, calcium originates in the soil before it is absorbed as food by plants. Calcium is taken up by plants and becomes part of the roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and seeds. Many animals build healthy bones and bodies with calcium from plants including some of the biggest strongest animals alive today like elephants and gorillas. For most of human history people have also built full size strong adult skeletons without consumption of milk from another animal species. Calcium only enters cow’s bodies because they eat plants!
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
Current recommendations are 1000 mg of calcium daily for men and women age 70 and younger and 1200 mg a day for those over 70. But scientists will admit just exactly how much of specific micronutrients our bodies need is not known and generally the recommendations put out by governments will err on the side of caution by recommending a high-end value. For example, in his article on the subject Dr. John McDougall sites a 1978 article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal where Paterson writes,
“Many official bodies give advice on desirable intakes of calcium but no clear evidence of a calcium deficiency disease in otherwise normal people has ever been given. In Western countries the usual calcium intake is of the order of 800-1000 mg/day; in many developing countries figures of 300-500 mg/day are found. There is no evidence that people with such a low intake have any problems with bones or teeth. It seems likely that normal people can adapt to have a normal calcium balance on calcium intakes as low as 150-200 mg/day and that this adaptation is sufficient even in pregnancy and lactation. Inappropriate concern about calcium intake may divert attention and resources from more important nutritional problems.”
In the same article McDougall sites a recent study of Inuit (Eskimo) children that found despite consuming a low-calcium diet consisting largely of meat (providing about 120 mg of calcium a day) these children were found to be healthy. McDougall has also said before that calcium deficiency is a nonexistent condition, but then retracted that in extremely rare cases of very restrictive diets the condition of Rickets (usually caused by lack of exposure to vitamin D from sunlight) can occur.
Plant Based Sources of Calcium
Plant foods are excellent sources of calcium. You can find nondairy milks like soy milk and almond milk and orange juices fortified with calcium that provide 200-330 mg per cup. Figs contain 300 mg for just one cup and three tablespoons (1 oz) of sesame seeds has a whopping 280 mg of calcium. Those on plant based and vegan diets need not fear calcium. Calcium is present in a variety of plant foods and as long as your diet contains a variety of plant foods, you are probably doing just fine.
|Soy Milk, calcium fortified||1 cup||200 to 400|
|Orange juice, calcium fortified||8 oz||300|
|Figs, dried, uncooked||1 cup||300|
|Sesame seeds, whole roasted||1 oz.||280|
|Tofu, firm, calcium set||4 oz||250 to 750|
|Spinach, cooked||1 cup||240|
|Broccoli, cooked||1 cup||180|
|Amaranth, cooked||0.5 cup||135|
|Molasses, blackstrap||1 Tbsp||135|
|Sesame tahini||1 oz. (2 Tbsp)||130|
|Arugula, raw||1 cup||125|
|Tofu, soft regular||4 oz||120 to 390|
|Soybeans, boiled||0.5 cup||100|
|Oatmeal, instant||1 package||100 to 150|
|Chard or Okra, cooked||1 cup||100|
|Almonds, toasted unblanched||1 oz.||80|
|Garbanzo Beans, cooked||1 cup||80|
|Pinto Beans, cooked||1 cup||75|
|Dandelion greens, raw||1 cup||80|
|Kiwi, raw||1 cup||50|
|Collard greens||1 cup||50|
1. CMAJ, Adaptation of Inuit children to a low calcium diet. 2. Mcdougall Newsletter, When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Calcium? 3. UCSF Health, Calcium content of food. 4. WebMD, Calcium. 5. National Osteoporosis Foundation, Calcium/Vitamin D