If you are like most Americans, you grew up being told that milk and other dairy products were excellent sources of calcium. Each day of my grade school life, life-sized cutouts of famous athletes and celebrities sporting milk mustaches and toting a full glass of the good stuff welcomed me into the school cafeteria. “Milk will help you grow tall and strong (like us!)”, they said. Being tall and strong was pretty important at the time, so I drank up. In fact, “Got Milk?” campaigns so strongly linked calcium with milk in the American mind, that it’s easy to think dairy is the sole source of the nutrient. Where then, is a vegan to get his or her calcium?
Milk does have lots of calcium, but it is far from the only source. It may not even be the best source. Dr. Neal Barnard writes in Eat Right, Live Longer,
“Dairy products are not the healthiest source of calcium. They do contain calcium but only about 30% of it is absorbed.”
Dr. Barnard advises his readers against relying on dairy products, citing health concerns arising from the lactose sugar, animal protein, and antibiotics in dairy.
“The healthiest calcium sources are ‘greens and beans,’” says Banard, referring to green leafy vegetables and beans and other legumes (from www.vegparadise.com/calcium.html).
Soy milk, tofu, orange juice, cereal, oatmeal, and flour which are fortified with calcium are all, of course, great sources of calcium—fortified tofu may provide as much as 160% of your daily value of calcium in a cup (nutritiondata.self.com). But there are number of vegan, whole foods that are great sources too. Dr. Barnard’s “greens and beans” rule generally holds true, with a few surprise sources like blackstrap molasses and one important exception: spinach. Spinach greens are high in calcium but chemical bonds prevent our bodies from absorbing it (www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/nutrition/calcium.aspx). Here are some of the unfortified, whole foods highest in calcium:
- Collard Greens – 266mg of calcium per cup (27% of daily value)
- Okra – 245mg per 10z (24% DV)
- Winged beans – 244mg per cup (24% DV)
- Soynuts (roasted soy beans) – 241mg per cup (24% DV)
- Turnip Greens – 197mg per cup (20% DV)
- Molasses, blackstrap – 172mg per Tbsp (17% DV)
- White beans – 161mg per cup (16% DV)
- Edamame – 97.6mg per cup (10% DV
Another important factor impacting calcium intact for vegans and non-vegans alike is sodium and caffeine. Sodium can cause your body to lose calcium and caffeine can limit calcium absorption, so limiting your intake of these substances can help you make the most of calcium in the foods you eat (http://www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/nutrition/calcium.aspx).
Plants may not be a good source for those crusty mustaches, but those “Got Milk?” cut-outs didn’t tell the whole story. Cows concentrate a great deal of calcium in their milk, but originally they got that calcium from eating plants, and so can you. By eating calcium-fortified foods, whole foods high in calcium (like “greens and beans”), or a combination of the two, vegans can easily meet their calcium needs.