Hey Up Beeters!
If your new to a plant-based lifestyle or if you have been plant based for a long time then chances are you have asked or been asked this question before. I think slowly there is becoming more and more awareness around the false belief that dairy is the Best and ONLY source of calcium and that without it our bones and teeth will crumble, however we still have a long way to go. Especially with the older population who at every family gathering or dinner, seem to be unable to resist the urge to tell you that “you need milk for strong bones love”. But that’s a conversation for another day…
In today’s post I want to give you practical tips about Calcium and ways of explaining it to others, so that they can understand that plants have GREAT and possible even BETTER sources of calcium than animal products.
What is calcium?
Calcium is one of the most plentiful minerals in our bodies and as you will probably already know, it is a pillar for strong and health bones. However, although calcium is marketed as essential for healthy bones, what we often don’t hear about is the other equally essential vitamins and minerals for healthy bones. Things such as: Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Phosphorus and Oestrogen all work together to form strong bones and teeth – amongst other things in the body.
Why does the amount of calcium we need vary over our lifetime?
Adults: 20-50 years = 100mg or 2 cups of fortified milk or 1 cup of firm tofu
Teenagers: 12-18 years = 1300mg
Adults >30 years: 1000mg – 1300mg
To understand why it varies we need to look at the other minerals/vitamins that come into play to produce healthy and strong bones.
Some of the major players include:
- Vitamin D: we get this mainly from the sun and this assists with absorption of calcium
- Vitamin K2: this slows the rate of bone reabsorption, and therefore increases strength of bones and is protective against fractures. If you get enough calories, you will get an adequate amount of Vit K2, without even trying.
- Oestrogen: inhibits bone reabsorption and therefore has a role in regulating bone turn over. Without an adequate amount of calcium, there is an increased turn-over of bone and therefore eventually, our bones get weaker.
So, the main one to look at here is oestrogen. Why? Because it is a major player and a sex hormone, that over our life time, especially as a female, varies.
You get to your maximum bone density, or the maximum amount of bone strength, by the time your 30 years old, with most of that strength coming before you turn 20! So, its super important that teenagers get enough calcium into their diets, have the correct hormone balances and get enough Vitamin D!
Likewise, another “at risk” population include postmenopausal women, as this is when you can expect a drop-in oestrogen levels, and with it a natural decline in bone density. So, it’s at this point that you want to do everything you can to slow down this gradual loss of bone density, rather than speed it up. Hence an increased amount of dietary calcium is required to ensure this.
Is there a difference between animal and plant sources of calcium:
I love talking about this link and like with many other vitamins and minerals, we often forget to make the connection that the animals are getting their essential vitamins and minerals from the plants that they are eating. We then eat them, and because they have already done the eating and breaking down of these nutrients for us, we get them second-hand. We are essentially getting the animals to get our nutrients out of plants for us, why not cut out the middle man and go straight to the source? Anyway, I digress…
So what is the difference between animal and plant sources and why the hell should you care? Well high quality studies have shown that there is a link between eating less animal products, specifically looking at dairy, and a decreased risk of fractures and osteoporosis in the elderly. We know that the populations who consume the least amount of diary have the lowest rates of osteoporosis and visa versa, coincidence I think not.
Older studies suggest that things that are more acid-forming, such as animal products, could lead to increased bone resorption (calcium loss from the bones). In one study they concluded that it’s the amount of acid production that occurs when we eat animal products. In short the amount of acid that is produced from metabolizing animal products adversely affects bone formation. However more recent research suggests that the relative acidity or alkalinity of ones diet has an insignificant impact on bone health. Although more research is absolutely needed in this emerging area of health, there is enough to point to the conclusion that we can equally as much if not more calcium intake and absorption from things such as fortified soy milk, or the likes.
And if you think about it from a personal point of view, how many of your grandparents or older people in your life, have Osteoporosis ? I bet there is no shortage of drinking cows milk or dairy products when they were growing up. From this we can assume that there is more to the picture then simply having a glass of milk a day.
As a plant-based eater, where can I get good sources of calcium?
Why is food combining some important?
Calcium is a fat soluble molecule and therefore it is best absorbed with a fat source. Additionally, it important to try to have foods that have a low oxalate content. (Oxalates are naturally occurring and they bind to certain minerals and decrease the ability for us to absorb them. They particularly like calcium.)
So, things like leafy greens (e.g spinach) are good sources of calcium, but can be hard to absorb due to the high oxalates. That’s not to say don’t eat spinach, it’s amazing for so many other things, but in terms of calcium, there is easier to absorb sources.
Foods high in calcium include:
- Plant based milk (fortified)
- Fortified orange juice
- Firm tofu
- Chia seeds
- Kidney beans
- Black Strap molasses
Food combos that might help with absorption include:
- Dried figs with almonds
- Tofu and broccoli
- Fortified milk that is high in fat (e.g coconut milk)
- Bokchoy and tahini based sauce
- Tofu and satay peanut butter
- Tang, A. L., Walker, K. Z., Wilcox, G., Strauss, B. J., Ashton, J. F., & Stojanovska, L. (2010). Calcium Absorption in Australian Osteopenic Postmenopausal Women: An Acute Comparative Study of Fortified Soymilk to Cows. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, 19(2), 243-249. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=20460239[uid]
- Fenton, T. R., Lyon, A. W., Eliasziw, M., Tough, S. C., & Hanley, D. A. (2009). Meta‐analysis of the effect of the acid‐ash hypothesis of osteoporosis on calcium balance. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 24(11), 1835-1840. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1359/jbmr.090515
- RDI: https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/calcium
- Väänänen, H. K., & Härkönen, P. L. (1996). Estrogen and bone metabolism. Maturitas, 23, S65-S69. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8865143
- Worldwide incidence of hip fracture in elderly women: relation to consumption of animal https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11034231/