Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, making up a huge 1.5 to 2% of the total body weight. The bones and teeth are the home to the majority of the body’s calcium, containing roughly 99% of it.
Calcium is not only responsible for helping to build and maintain strong bones and teeth, but also promoting heart health, contracting muscles, regulating the heartbeat, clotting the blood and regulating the nervous system. Calcium can help relieve aching muscles and bones, maintain the correct acid-alkaline balance and reduce menstrual cramps. Calcium may even serve as a protector against high blood pressure, osteoporosis and colon cancer.
And so with all that in mind, I think we can all agree that calcium is a pretty incredible and important nutrient, and without it, we wouldn’t survive.
With many people turning to a plant-based or dairy free diet due to ethical or dietary reasons, or out of necessity due to dairy or lactose intolerance, more people are cutting dairy out of their diet.
This has understandably caused many questions to arise about alternative sources of calcium after being conditioned for many years to believe that the best source of calcium comes from milk and dairy products.
The most common question that arises is often “Can I get enough calcium on a 100% plant-based or dairy-free diet?”
The resounding answer is, of course, YES – and within this blog, I will delve into the commonly asked questions such as “What are the best plant-based calcium sources?” “How much calcium do I need?” “Do I need to take calcium supplements?” and “What are the signs of calcium deficiency?”
And so without further ado, let’s get to it….
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
The recommended intake (RDA) is 800 mg/day for children, adults and older people, increasing to 1200 mg for teenagers, pregnant and lactating women.
Really, you should be able to get all the calcium you need by eating a varied and balanced diet, however if you do take calcium supplements, make sure to check whether any additional supplements you take also contain calcium, and take your diet into consideration also, as taking too much as this mineral (more than 1,500mg a day) could be harmful, leading to stomach pain, diarrhoea or far more serious problems like calcium oxalate kidney stones.
How Do Our Bodies Absorb Calcium?
Many people hear they need calcium and simply grab a supplement that says calcium on it, but it’s not only calcium that is important when it comes to bone health, or overall calcium absorption.
You also need Vitamin D, C and K, along with minerals magnesium, boron, selenium, copper, zinc and phosphorus to support good bone health and optimal absorption.
Together these enhance the way calcium is absorbed by the body and enables it to be effectively incorporated into the bones.
Signs of Calcium Deficiency
- Muscle cramps or leg cramps
- Joint pain or arthritis
- Tooth decay
- High blood pressure
- Osteomalacia (softening of the bone)
- Osteopenia (a condition in which bone mineral density is lower than normal – often a precursor to osteoporosis.)
- Osteoporosis (means “porous bone.” It is a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. As a result, bones become very fragile.)
- Rickets (in children) which results in bone deformities and growth retardation.
Plant-based / Dairy-free Food Sources of Calcium
- Dark Green Leafy Veg – Kale, romaine, rocket and butterhead lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage and broccoli, Swiss chard, Parsley, Dandelion, nettle, watercress, chickweed and microgreens are edible green leaves.
- Millet, oats, quinoa
- Chickpeas (and many dried beans/legumes)
- Sesame seeds and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds), pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds
- Almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts
- Seaweed and sea vegetables e.g kelp, dulse, nori
- Dried figs, prunes, dates
For those not avoiding fish or all types of dairy:
- Sardines, tinned wild salmon with bones
- Goat’s milk
- Milk kefir
Plant-based sources of calcium are actually found to have a higher bioavailability (rate of absorbability) within the body than dairy and are often more superior choices.
This is partly due to the additional vitamins and minerals within the food, helping to improve the absorbability of the calcium content.
Since the dairy products found on our supermarket shelves nowadays are pasteurised, homogenised and no longer raw, it actually reduces the calcium and overall vitamin content of the product, making it much harder for the body to digest and utilise. Not to mention the fact that our bodies can only absorb roughly 30% of the calcium content from pasteurised dairy.
Alternative options for those still wishing to consume dairy include goat’s milk, which is often easier to digest or fermented dairy products like milk kefir. Fermentation takes a pasteurized food (milk in this case) and turns it back into a living food teeming with good bacteria. It doesn’t exactly “reverse” the pasteurization, but at least it does inject some life back into it.
As it cultures at room temperature, the beneficial strains of bacteria and benign natural yeasts will proliferate, metabolize the milk’s lactose and create a sour, thick beverage with vitamins and probiotics, and actually be far more easily digested, even for some who suffer from lactose intolerance.
A diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole foods has more than enough calcium to meet your needs, but additional foods to consider adding to your diet to boost calcium absorption include:
Vitamin D: Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, canned tuna, eggs, and soya products, some mushrooms and of course, sunshine!
Vitamin K: K1 is synthesised by plants and vegetables such as green leafy vegetables, avocados, kiwis; and K2 by gut bacteria e.g natto (fermented soya beans) and sauerkraut.
As I mentioned previously, you should be able to get all your calcium requirements from a well-balanced diet; however some people are recommended calcium supplementation from practitioners or doctors, so this bit is for you.
When looking for a calcium supplement I would recommend you purchase one in combination with other helping nutrients, such as Vitamin D, C and K, along with minerals magnesium, boron, selenium, copper, zinc and phosphorus to really improve the absorption of the mineral. These nutrients also work together with calcium in the body, and so without them, the calcium won’t be able to do its various jobs in the body alone.
I would highly recommend the following products to help increase your calcium levels if using supplements:
Solgar Ultimate Bone Support
Biocare Osteoplex (Bone Health Complex)
Wild Nutrition Bone Complex
Natures Plus Source of Life Garden Bone Support
Mag365 Bone Support Formulation
If you are choosing to purchase calcium separately because you already have a multivitamin complex/supplement containing minerals such as magnesium, vitamin D etc. I will then leave you with the advice that Calcium Citrate or Calcium Chelate and other soluble forms are the best forms of calcium to supplement with for optimal absorption. Try to avoid calcium carbonate as this is very poorly absorbed by the human body.
There are many things that can interrupt your body’s ability to absorb the calcium it receives, and some that cause calcium to be excreted from the bones. These are known as calcium robbers and include:
- Excessive intake of magnesium and zinc
- A highly acidic diet
- High phytate diet
- Hormonal imbalances
- Aluminium based antacids
If you’re knocking back your supplements with a big cup of coffee, followed by a stressful commute to work, stuffing a sugar-laden pastry into your mouth whilst sipping your 3rd coffee of the day, you may need to take a step back and look at your diet and lifestyle choices.
Also, if you’re eating a diet high in grains, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds, you will be consuming a lot of phytates. These have the unfortunate habit of leeching the mineral and vitamin content of your food and hindering their absorption. Do not fear.Simply soak your grains/nuts/seeds overnight in water (or during the day whilst at work) and rinse them before consuming. 8-12 hours should do the trick. It also lowers the cooking time for grains such as rice and dried beans – bonus!
*Please note that while we are knowledgeable about our products and nutrition, this blog should never be a substitute for medical advice and attention
Please remember that you should always obtain the all-clear from your doctor before starting any new supplement plan or diet if you’re on any medication