As a kid growing up, I remember being bombarded with countless advertisements on TV and in magazines featuring pro athletes and celebrities with milk mustaches. The message was clear: drink milk or suffer from weak bones (or worse – be perceived as uncool!) It turns out, though, that while calcium is an extremely important nutrient, there are more than enough reasons to avoid milk and other dairy products. At the same time, fortunately, there are plenty of healthy vegan calcium sources we can turn to instead.
The Health Benefits of Calcium
Calcium Strengthens Bones and Teeth
As everyone knows, calcium is necessary for optimal teeth and bone health. In fact, this is where calcium is mainly stored. Getting sufficient amounts of calcium can also lessen your risk of bone-related ailments, from back pain to osteoporosis. (1)
Calcium Helps Regulate Blood Pressure
Calcium also comes with a number of lesser-known benefits. Not many people realize that calcium, along with magnesium, is helpful for regulating blood pressure. Including an adequate amount of calcium-rich foods in your diet can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and the plethora of other health issues that come with it. (2)
Calcium is Vital for Healthy Skin, Hair and Nails
Calcium is also vital for healthy and vibrant skin. According to Livestrong, adequate amounts of calcium can help the body regenerate skin cells faster. A calcium deficiency, then, can result in old, dry and cracked skin. (3)
A lack of sufficient amounts of calcium in the body is also believed to result in a hormonal imbalance which could lead to hair loss and brittle nails.
Calcium Can Help Improve Your Sleep
Calcium is widely recognized as a natural sleep aid. Our body naturally produces a chemical called melatonin, which helps aid and regulate our sleep cycles. Calcium, meanwhile, contains a certain amino acid called tryptophan which helps produce melatonin. If you’re having issues with sleep, you should examine your regular calcium intake before opting for any chemical alternatives. (4)
Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency
Calcium, along with vitamin D and magnesium, is one of the main nutrients that many people are simply not getting enough of these days. The mineral is extremely important for growing children, and calcium deficiency at an early age can result in some serious developmental issues, such as bowed legs.
But what are some of the symptoms of calcium deficiency in otherwise relatively healthy adults?
- Achy bones
- Sudden spasms
- Numbness in the fingers
- Raised blood pressure
- Brittle and weak nails
- Fatigue (5)
Dairy: The Most Popular Source of Calcium
When most people think of calcium, they think of dairy. And for good reason. Milk, yogurt and cheese are among the highest sources of calcium out there. Just one cup of milk, for example, contains around 30% of our daily calcium needs. Meanwhile, cheese can contain up to 20% per ounce. (5)
The daily recommended dose of calcium for adult men and women, by the way, is generally believed to be 1000 mg.
It’s no wonder why the dairy industry has long used milk’s abundance of calcium to promote their product to the masses. After all, calcium is good for us. Dairy contains lots of calcium, so that means that all dairy is good for us too, right?
Well, not so fast.
Reasons to Avoid Dairy
Though it’s true that dairy products contain plenty of nutrients that are good for us, such as calcium and other vital minerals, there are also a number of reasons to think twice before downing that glass of milk. For instance…
Increased Risk of Cancer
According to an article by Harvard University, too much dairy consumption could potentially lead to an increased risk of prostate cancer in men or ovarian cancer in women. The exact reasons for this are yet to be determined, however. The increased cancer risks in women could either be attributed to too much lactase or because of all the hormones contained in milk these days (see below). (6)
Meanwhile, men with increased risk of prostate cancer could possibly be obtaining too much calcium from dairy sources. This brings to light the fact that not all calcium sources are equal, meaning our body absorbs calcium differently depending on how we get it.
Many of the added chemicals, in addition to the pasteurization process that milk often goes through, can result in milk drinkers having a lot of excess calcium that can’t be properly absorbed by the body. Milk bought from the supermarket, then, while high in calcium on paper, may not actually be a good way to consume the important nutrient.
Dairy Products These Days Are Full of Hormones and Antibiotics
This one is pretty self explanatory, but most factory farms these days are pumping their cows with all sorts of artificial stuff. And then that stuff goes right into the milk or other dairy product, and then right into our bodies. This can result in issues like hormonal imbalances in otherwise healthy humans. And as mentioned above, added chemicals can prevent our bodies from properly absorbing calcium. (7)
Many of Us Are Mildly Lactose-Intolerant
As mentioned in my review of the nutrition documentary ‘What The Health,’ the film briefly touches upon the dairy industry while bringing up an important point: most people on the planet cannot adequately process milk.
According to the web site Healthline, that figure is somewhere at 3/4ths of the world’s population. Why is that? Basically, while infants obviously need milk to survive and grow, many of us eventually lose the ability to break down lactase as we get older. (8)
Some people know right away if they’re lactose intolerant, as they’ll experience unpleasant bloating, stomach aches or dizziness right after consuming dairy. It’s people that are only mildly lactose intolerant that may have it worse in the end, though.That’s because it won’t be obvious right away that dairy is the cause of more mild digestive issues or other health problems you may be experiencing.
Dairy Causes Congestion
Dairy consumption results in congestion and an increase of mucus. According to Dr. Mercola, “Certain breeds of cows produce milk containing a protein called beta-CM-7. This protein can stimulate mucus glands in both your digestive and respiratory tracts.” (9)
Scientific studies aside, I have personal experience with this one. Back before becoming mindful of my nutrition and health, I regularly consumed dairy products like cheese and yogurt. And sure enough, every autumn and winter I found myself constantly congested. I thought that that’s just the way my body was built. But after I mostly stopped consuming dairy products? I hardly get congested at all these days, even in winter when everyone around me is coughing and sniffling.
Furthermore, when I have a friend or family member with a cough or constantly needing to blow their nose, I sometimes ask if they normally consume dairy. Sure enough, the answer is pretty much always ‘yes.’ Therefore, I think there is definitely a major correlation between dairy consumption and congestion.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to go dairy free. Now, let’s take a look at some alternative vegan calcium sources you can start including in your diet instead.
Some of the Best Vegan Calcium Sources
The best vegan sources of calcium are dark leafy greens, a wide variety of beans and nuts and seeds. For those of you with a sweet tooth, you may want to consider blackstrap molasses for your calcium needs, or maybe even a naval orange.
Note: there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on exactly how much calcium each food contains, as the numbers vary when looking at different sources. But all the foods in the list below are also very healthy for a whole lot of other reasons, so there’s no reason not to include more of them in your diet.
Without further ado, let’s look at some of the best vegan calcium sources out there:
- Sesame Seeds: ¼ cup contains 351mg of calcium. Sesame seeds are also rich in things like magnesium, zinc and manganese.
- Collard greens: 1 cup chopped or cooked collard greens contains around 267mg of calcium. They’re also a great source of vitamin K which is important for calcium absorption. (10)
- Almonds: ½ a cup is over 220 mg. Almonds are also high in magnesium, which in addition to calcium, is vital for healthy bones.
- White Beans: 1 cup canned is around 191 mg, although the calcium absorption rate is not as high as other foods. White beans also contain potassium and vitamin C.
- Kale: 2 cups of chopped kale contain 188mg. Also high in vitamin C.
- Chia Seeds: 2 tablespoons contain about 177mg of calcium. Chia seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. (11)
- Blackstrap molasses: 1 tablespoon contains 172mg. High in magnesium and other antioxidants.
- Bok Choy: 1 cup contains around 158mg. Also high in phosphorus, zinc and vitamin K.
- Seaweed: 1 cup of raw seaweed contains about 126 mg. Also high in iodine, magnesium and potassium. (12)
- Dried figs: A serving of 8 dried figs contains 107mg of calcium. They also contain plenty of vitamin K and potassium.
- Naval oranges: 1 orange contains around 60mg. Oranges are also high in vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium.
Oxalates and Calcium Absorption: To make matters more complex, just because a food contains a certain amount of calcium does not mean that our bodies are going to absorb that entire amount. In fact, different foods may have drastically different absorption rates.
Spinach, for example, may contain a high amount of calcium on paper, but it’s also high in what are known as ‘oxalates.’ Oxalates, or oxalic acid, can interfere with calcium absorption which means that spinach is not a great calcium source, and therefore omitted from the list above. On the other hand, spinach is high in magnesium, which happens to be vital for calcium absorption. So don’t hesitate to eat more of it! (13)
Soy: Soy products are also considered to be great sources of calcium. This could explain why people in East Asian countries do fine without drinking much milk. However, I would advise those living in Western countries to avoid soy products because of their extremely high probability of being genetically modified.
Seafood: When it comes to nondairy, but also non-vegan calcium sources, a lot of the best options are fish: especially sardines and salmon.
Calcium and other Nutrients: Remember, for optimum bone health, it’s not solely calcium that you need to be worrying about. Nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin K and magnesium are considered equally important. Luckily, a lot of the greens and nuts above contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients. But if you’re still concerned about not getting enough, you may want to consider supplementation.
The Best Vegan Calcium Supplements
If you’re still concerned about not getting enough calcium from your diet, there’s always the option to take supplements instead. Nowadays, it’s becoming harder and harder to find calcium supplements that don’t also contain other vitamins or minerals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. As nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium work great with calcium, it’s no problem if your supplements also contain amounts of either one.
Some believe that calcium absorption can be disrupted by a high intake of certain minerals like zinc (or vice versa), although this is still up for debate. Interestingly, many supplement varieties seem to contain both calcium and zinc together. To be on the safe side, you may want to take them separately and at different times of day instead.
- Though I typically prefer to obtain my nutrients from natural food sources, one calcium supplement that I’ve taken in the past was ‘Bone Restore’ by LifeExtension. In addition to 700mg of calcium per serving, it also contains both vitamin D3 and magnesium, with much smaller amounts of zinc and manganese.
- The web site Urban Vegan recommends ‘Organic Plant Calcium’ by Garden of Life. In addition to containing vitamin D3, the product is certified non-GMO and comes in an easy-to-swallow pill size. (14)
- The popular supplement brand NOW Foods has a calcium and magnesium combination which contains 1,000mg of calcium and 500mg of magnesium. This is a simple, straightforward combo that lacks any other ingredients, which is good for those who want to keep track of exactly how much they’re getting of what.
We know that getting enough calcium is essential for strong bones and our overall health. But with all the health risks of dairy, especially the kind packaged and sold in most supermarkets, there are more than enough reasons to be eating less of it. If you’ve already been including plenty of dark leafy greens and seeds into your diet, you can rest assured that you’re intaking enough calcium as well as other vital nutrients. If, for some reason, you have trouble eating enough of the foods in the list above, calcium supplementation is cheap and easy to come by.
With so many delicious vegan calcium sources out there, maybe one day we’ll see the celebrities and pro athletes ditch the milk mustaches and start promoting sesame seeds or collard greens instead. However, I doubt that day will ever come. Instead, let’s spread the word to our friends and family that there are plenty of other healthier and cleaner options when it comes to strengthening our bones and teeth.