A calcium deficiency can lead to several diseases like osteoporosis and vegans are especially at risk since we don’t consume milk and milk products. In this post, I will show how you can get enough calcium as a vegan by easily hitting the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium.
What’s the RDA?
The RDA tells us the amount of a nutrient that you must consume to ensure you don’t get a deficiency. The RDA of calcium for adults according to the Indian Council of Medical Research is 600mg per day. Since the RDA only tells us how much you need to consume to not get a deficiency, I’d go as high as 1000-1500 mg of calcium.
The Importance of Bioavailability
Bioavailability tells us the percentage of a nutrient the body can absorb from a food product. For example, calcium in kale is 49% bioavailable, therefore, 100 grams of kale containing 71 milligrams of calcium would actually equal only 35 milligrams of absorbable calcium.
Hitting the RDA for calcium could be a little challenging if you’re vegan as your only sources would be plant-based foods. Plant-based foods contain phytates and oxalates which reduce calcium bioavailability.
Vegan Calcium Sources
Good plant-based sources of calcium are those which contain a minimal amount of phytic and oxalic acid. Dark green leafy vegetables, like kale, broccoli and bok choy are relatively rich in calcium and low in oxalic acid which makes the calcium more bioavailable. Here’s an infographic to show you the impact of bioavailability on the amount of calcium that your body can absorb per 100g serving of some vegan foods.
Apart from these, you can also include calcium-fortified food.
Notice the interplay between percent bioavailability and total calcium. For example, broccoli is 61% bioavailable which is a lot more than Chinese spinach which is only 8% bioavailable, however, Chinese spinach still contains slightly more calcium per 100g serving than broccoli since it has a much greater amount of total calcium.
Also, this does not mean that other popular sources of calcium like amaranth are useless. The list above only includes the most bioavailable sources of calcium that have been studied by researchers in the West. I couldn’t find bioavailability data for a lot of other vegan calcium sources available in India.
Understandably, many of the above-mentioned sources of calcium may not be easily available or economical or both. In such cases, supplementation can easily help you fulfil the RDA for calcium. Two of the most common and well-researched calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and citrate.
Calcium carbonate provides more calcium than calcium citrate. Since calcium carbonate requires stomach acid to digest, it should be taken after a meal. If calcium carbonate causes any gastric issues, take calcium citrate as it is easy to digest even on an empty stomach. Please consult a doctor before you begin supplementing.
If you’re vegan and concerned about your calcium intake, I highly recommend using a food tracking app such as MyFitnessPal. You can enter all the food that you eat on an average day along with the quantities for each meal. Next, open the nutrition summary to see the total calcium you consumed. It should be between 600-1000 mg. Again, this is only your total calcium intake and NOT the amount of calcium that your body actually absorbed from the food. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of any applications that account for bioavailability and your best bet is to simply include as many highly bioavailable sources of calcium as you can.
Consider the bioavailability and not just the total amount of calcium. Try your best to include sources of calcium from the list provided. If you don’t have access to them, take a calcium supplement. If you aren’t sure that you’re receiving enough calcium, use a food tracking application.
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