I still remember the television ads for dairy as a child in the 90s, insisting that we needed to consume their products to maintain strong bones. The truth is, there are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium, so strap in – I'm about to give you the low-down on not only plant sources of this important nutrient, but on how to best absorb it.
Why do I need calcium?
While calcium is vital for healthy teeth and bones, did you know it also plays a crucial role in other systems of the body? It helps to regulate heart, nerve, and muscle function, as well as aid in normal blood clotting and message transmission from the nervous system. In short, it’s very important!
The recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium – depending on age – is between 1000mg to 1300mg, which can be as simple as a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a handful of tasty snacks on hand during the day. Nuts, berries – or my personal favourite – anything dipped in hummus – will get you to your RDI with ease. Get as creative as you like! Is the loud crunch of almonds in the office drawing unwanted attention your way? Just slather that almond butter on a toasted crumpet! Don’t enjoy milky beverages? Use a cup of fortified soy milk to make some pancakes! Have some fun with your meal times – the possibilities are endless!
So what foods should I eat?
Luckily, getting the recommended amount of calcium in your daily meals is super easy once you know what you should be including. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, broccoli, bok choy and silverbeet are some of the best calcium sources, providing around 100mg in only half a cup.1 They are also high in iron, fibre, antioxidants and folate, so eating a variety of these with every meal can help you reach your daily targets while offering a whole range of added nutritional benefits.
Another way to ensure you’re getting your RDI is by loading up on beans and other legumes like chickpeas, pinto beans, white beans or edamame – these are all great sources of calcium and so versatile in the kitchen. Depending on the type of bean, you can get between 50mg and 10mg of calcium per 100g!2
Lastly, nuts! Not only are they rich in protein and healthy fats, but yes, you guessed it – calcium! Some of the nuts with the highest calcium contents are almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios and Brazil nuts. Per handful, they all have between 2–10% of the RDI, so you can sneak them into fresh smoothies, muesli, salads, or eat them as a nutritious snack between meals.2
What’s the deal with calcium fortified foods?
If you’re looking to up your calcium game, there are plenty of fortified products on supermarket shelves. Plant-based milks and yoghurts made from almonds, soy or oats usually contain around a quarter or more of your RDI. This means that by making a smoothie or bowl of cereal (which is often already fortified) in the morning with 2–3 servings of fortified plant milk or yoghurt, you could hit your daily calcium target before the day has even begun! Another great way of adding calcium to your diet is fortified orange juice. Orange juice also provides heaps of vitamin C, so adding juice to your morning routine is not only delicious, but nutritious.
If, like me, you’re a tofu fan, you’ll be happy to hear that a lot of store-bought tofu is fortified with calcium. Because tofu absorbs the flavours it’s cooked with, you can pretty much add it to every meal — whether it’s silken tofu in creamy desserts, or a firmer variety for a tofu scramble, or your favourite curry. At around 350mg of calcium per 100g, tofu is an easy and quick way of adding this essential nutrient to your recipes.1 If you can’t find fortified tofu, don’t worry! Regular tofu still contains calcium, though generally around half the amount of the fortified version.
Fun fact: Tofu is actually one of the most calcium-rich foods you can eat, providing a third more calcium per serve than calcium-fortified dairy milk!3
I’m ready to absorb!
As with most nutrients, there are many ways to help increase the absorption of calcium in your body, and this first tip is a doozy – spend some time outdoors! Vitamin D helps regulate your body’s calcium levels, with the purest form coming directly from the sun. That’s right – spending safe amounts of time in glorious sunshine can not only keep your vitamin D on track but can help you better absorb your calcium. Of course, enjoying sunshine comes with many other health benefits too, so don’t be afraid to get out there and bask in the warm glow – responsibly, of course!
If your lifestyle doesn’t allow for much time outdoors, or even if you live in a colder climate, you may wish to monitor your levels of vitamin D and consider a supplement if necessary (regardless of diet, a lot of people are low in vitamin D and should consider supplementing so get the advice of a health professional if needed). Very few foods actually contain large quantities of vitamin D and I was recently delighted to discover that one of my favourite vegetables – mushrooms – are a fantastic plant-based source of this important nutrient, providing a substantial amount of immunity-boosting Vitamin D in a single serve.
Lastly, while I mentioned earlier that leafy greens are a great source of calcium, it’s worth noting that calcium is best absorbed by the body when the greens have been steamed or cooked before eating — and let’s be honest, they’re usually more delicious that way anyway!
Variety is the name of the game
As you can see, getting enough calcium on a plant-based diet is easy! In fact, you probably have most of the best calcium sources already in your fridge or pantry. To make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need – not just calcium – variety is key. A great rule of thumb is to eat all the colours of the rainbow when it comes to your plate. Try adding in different varieties of fruit and veg every day, and if you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your foods, throw in some fortified options. Your bones will thank you!