A Bone to Pick: do vegans get enough calcium?

We are constantly being advised that the correct amount of daily calcium will help us build and maintain strong bones well into old age. For most people that’s ensuring a supply through mainly the consumption of dairy: milk, butter, cream, yoghurt, cheese.

However, if you’re vegan where does that leave you? Vegans, unlike vegetarians, are very strict about disallowing any animal product to touch their lips, including all dairy products, eggs and fish. The strictest will not even use or wear leather or any item made from an animal-based product.

Most vegetarians and vegans chose their diet because of their care of animals, rather than health specifically. Their focus is to reduce the harm caused by factory farming systems where animals often face terror, discomfort and outright abuse. But, despite their efforts to change the world, are they opening themselves to the dangers of osteoporosis because of a lack of calcium intake?

Well, it appears not. Because vegans have a host of alternatives which they can make use of. And very often, because they’re aware of what they put into their bodies, they can actually harvest more calcium than the average non-vegan.

We need between 1000 and 1200 milligrams of calcium per day for healthy bones, and it’s a target that not everyone reaches. At least 75% of the population may be lacking in the right levels of calcium on any given day. So, the green leaf nibble should in fact not only be the domain of the vegan.

Why we need to ensure sufficient intake of calcium

Our bones contain large amounts of calcium, which helps to make them firm and rigid. Calcium is also needed for nerve and muscle function and blood clotting. When calcium is too low, calcium will be taken from the bone and used for other critical functions.

Bones are constantly broken down and made anew. Up until the age of 30 or so, we build more bone than we lose. But in later years, the body tends to lose more bone than it builds up – and this can lead to fragile bones or osteoporosis. Hence the need to up the calcium intake to counter this process.

Almost all of the calcium in the body is in the bones. There is a tiny amount in the bloodstream, responsible for important functions such as muscle contraction, maintenance of your heartbeat, and transmission of nerve impulses. However, we regularly lose calcium from our bloodstream through urine, sweat, and feces. The body renews this calcium through food absorption or it will harvest its needs from the bones themselves, resulting ultimately in weakening the bones.

Preventing loss is more beneficial than replacing calcium

Keeping your bones strong depends more on preventing the loss of calcium from your body than on boosting your calcium intake. And there are several reasons for the loss of calcium – but the most ‘under the radar’ culprit is actually too much protein. Along with diet and lifestyle choices, how much calcium you stand to lose depends on the kind and amount of protein you eat.

Here’s the list that may ruffle feathers:

  • Diets high in protein cause more calcium to be lost through the urine.
  • Protein from animal products is much more likely to cause calcium loss than protein from plant foods. (There goes meat.)
  • Diets high in sodium (avoid that salt sprinkle!) increase calcium loss in the urine.
  • Caffeine (our morning favourite), unfortunately increases the rate at which calcium is lost through the urine.
  • And the usual culprit, smoking, increases the overall loss of calcium from the body.

Alternative sources to dairy

Dairy products are viewed globally as the best source of calcium, but what to do do if you are a vegan? Consuming calcium from plant-based sources, especially green vegetables and beans, provides one of the best building blocks for bone building. Even so, you will still need to engage in exercise and a diet moderate in protein to help you protect your bones.

Nevertheless, other excellent sources of calcium do exist. Sources of well-absorbed calcium and a good diet regime for vegans include:

  • calcium-fortified soy milk and juice
  • calcium-set tofu, soybeans and soynuts
  • bok choy, broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage
  • kale, mustard greens, and okra
  • grains, beans (other than soybeans)
  • turnip greens, watercress
  • drinking a glass of fortified drink each day – such as soya milk or fruit juice
  • greens also contain vitamin K, potassium, and magnesium, which also contribute to better bone health
  • taking a 500-600 mg calcium supplement if you cannot get to the recommended daily intake of approximately 1000-1200mg
  • regular exercise and a diet moderate in protein to help you protect your bones.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organization dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za