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Calcium Essentials: A Guide to Thriving on a Plant based Diet

Calcium isn’t just for strong bones and teeth; it’s like the MVP mineral for keeping your body in top shape. It’s an essential player for muscle contractions, blood clotting, heart rhythm, and nerve signals.

Your body can’t create calcium on its own, so it relies on what you eat. Most of it, about 98%, hangs out in your bones, acting like a reserve tank.

Your body works hard to keep a steady calcium supply in your blood and tissues. When it needs more, it pulls from your bones.

But if you’re not chowing down on enough calcium-rich foods, this can weaken your bones and set you up for osteoporosis—a condition where bones get brittle and prone to breaks.

How much do you need?

The recommended calcium intake for adults ranges from 1000 to 1300 mg of calcium per day.

There is no evidence that vegans require a higher calcium consumption than their meat-eating counterparts to meet their needs. In fact, calcium rich plants often have a higher bioavailability than animal-based foods.

For example, dairy foods have a bioavailability of about 30%. So if cow’s milk contains 240 mg per 200ml, then about 72 mg of calcium will be absorbed by the body.

Plants contain less calcium overall but have a higher bioavailability. For example, bok choy has roughly 160 mg of calcium in 1 cooked cup but has a bioavailability of 50% which means about 80 mg is absorbed.

So eating 1 cup of cooked bok choy absorbs as much calcium as 1 cup of cow’s milk.

Calcium-fortified juice and calcium-set tofu have a similar amount of calcium and bioavailability as dairy.

Some plant foods contain natural substances called oxalates and phytates. These bind to calcium and decrease its bioavailability. Spinach contains the most calcium of all the leafy greens but is high in oxalates. This lowers the bioavailability to about 5% – or the equivalent of absorbing 13 mg from the 260 mg of calcium in 1 cooked cup.

This does not mean you should avoid spinach, as it contains other valuable nutrients. But you should include a range of calcium-rich plants in your diet.

Plant-based calcium sources

Calcium is found in a wide variety of plant-based foods.

Adding calcium-rich foods throughout your meals each day can make meeting your recommended intake a lot easier.

A great source of calcium would be 100mg or more per serve

  • 250ml of calcium-fortified soy milk – 400mg
  • 250ml of calcium-fortified orange juice – 350mg
  • 100g of calcium-fortified soy yoghurt – 120mg
  • 100g of non-calcium set firm tofu – 175 mg
  • 100g of calcium set firm tofu – 350 mg
  • 100g of tempeh – 110mg
  • 100g of bok choy – 105mg
  • 30g of chia seeds – 190mg
  • 200g of baked beans – 120mg

Do i need to supplement?

The answer to this is – it depends.

It is possible to get adequate calcium on a plant-based diet without the need for supplementation if you’re conscious about getting 1000-1300mg a day.

Three high-calcium meals could consist of:

  • Breakfast: 150g fortified soy-yoghurt with 30g chia seeds (370mg)
  • Lunch: 150g calcium-set tofu scramble with 200g baked beans on toast (645mg)
  • Dinner: 150g tempeh stir fry with 150g bok choy (323mg)
Total: 1338mg calcium
But supplementation can help

If you struggle to consistently consume enough calcium-rich plant foods or adequate calcium intake is not possible, Healthy Bones Australia advises that 500mg to 600mg of calcium supplements per day is considered safe and effective.

To improve the absorption of calcium, make sure you get enough vitamin D which assists with the absorption of calcium. Adults should get 600-800 IU each day of vitamin D. For most Australians, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular incidental exposure to the sun – or about 10-15 mins of full exposure in summer and about 30 minutes in winter.


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