The subject of how to get enough vitamins and minerals recently popped up in an online chat that I’m part of. The conversation was sparked by a question about what everyone does to make sure that they’re getting enough vitamins and minerals. Answers ranged from taking a variety of supplements to mostly getting nutrients from whole foods. “Thanks for answering, everyone,” the OG topic-starter wrote at the end. “Wow, being an adult, huh? What a trip.” Indeed. Part of adult life is staying on top of getting in your vitamins and minerals. And one of the most important of those is calcium. It’s well-known that milk and cheese are reliable sources, but what about when you’re dairy-free? Let’s talk about the best vegan sources of calcium and why this mineral is so important in the first place.
What Is Calcium?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and it’s essential for bone health as well as helping the cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous systems function properly. Your body doesn’t produce calcium on its own, so it needs to come from food or supplements.
“Almost 99% of all the calcium in our body is stored in our bones,” says Katrina Trisko, MS, RDN, CDN, a Registered Dietitian based in NYC. “But the other 1% is utilized in our cells to assist with muscle contractions, nerve transmission, cell signaling, and practically every essential metabolic function that keeps us alive.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the amount of calcium you need depends on age and sex. Women between the ages of 19-50 and men between the ages of 19-70 need about 1,000 mg a day. Women ages 51 and over and men ages 71 and older need 1,200 mg of calcium a day.
In order to absorb calcium, your body also needs vitamin D, also called calciferol. Working together, calcium and vitamin D helps protect against osteoporosis, a disease where bones become brittle, later in life. Your body is constantly breaking down and replacing its bone tissue, and about 99 percent of its calcium is stored in the bones. So low calcium levels can put you at risk for osteoporosis. Vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight, supplements, and food.
The Best Vegan Sources of Calcium
Here are the best plant-based sources of calcium, according to the USDA’s FoodData Central.
Dark Leafy Greens
The lessons taught in childhood still hold true: always eat your greens. In addition to being an abundant source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, certain dark leafy greens are good sources of calcium. You might have heard that spinach is also a good source of calcium. But, Trisko says this isn’t entirely the case.
“Spinach is one of a few dark leafy greens (as well as beet greens, rhubarb, and swiss chard) that are high in another compound called oxalates, which can bind to calcium, and prevent the absorption during the digestive process,” she says. So, even though spinach contains other micronutrients, it isn’t the best source of calcium.
The good news is that you can still eat your greens and get your calcium. “Collard greens and kale top the list, packing in 268 mg and 177 mg per cup cooked, respectively,” says Trisko.
Many soy-based foods are rich in calcium. One cup of cooked edamame, immature green soybeans that are often served steamed as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants, yields 175.4mg per cooked cup.
Tofu, tempeh, and natto—a traditional Japanese breakfast food consisting of sticky fermented soybeans—are also good vegan sources of calcium. However, the amount of calcium in tofu varies greatly by brand. Look for varieties that contain calcium sulfate, which is often used as a coagulation agent. Firm tofu varieties made with it may contain as much as 200 mg of calcium per 100 grams. Tempeh contains 111 mg of calcium per 100 grams and natto, which comes in single-serving packages, contains 206 mg per 200-calorie serving.
Lentils & Beans
Adding a serving of lentils and beans to your daily diet can help you meet your daily calcium needs. Trisko recommends chickpeas and white beans in particular (which contain 80mg and 126 mg per cooked cup, respectively), along with the aforementioned edamame and tofu. What’s more, beans are rich in vitamins and minerals including fiber, protein, potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
All nuts and nut butters contain calcium, but some are better than others. Almonds are the leader of the pack at 76 mg per one-ounce serving.
Brazil nuts follow with 45 mg per one-ounce serving and walnuts, pistachios, and macadamia nuts contain between 24-38 mg per one-ounce serving. In addition to this, nuts come with other health benefits, such as healthy fats, fiber, and protein. Walnuts are a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acid, if you’re looking for a non-fish option. On top of that, nuts are also a good source of B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and selenium.
You can also turn to certain seeds for calcium. Tahini, which is made from ground sesame seeds, contains the most at 64 mg per tablespoon. Chia and flax seeds—which are also plant-based sources of omega-3—are decent sources of calcium, containing between 72-80mg per two tablespoons. (Note: flax seeds are easier to digest when they’re ground.)
Some types of seaweed are rich in calcium. Wakame contains the most at 30 mg per quarter cup. And, it also contains small amounts of vitamins A, C, E, and K.
But, seaweed also contains high concentrations of iodine, which can have negative effects on health when frequently consumed. They also have the potential to accumulate toxic metals, which can also pose health risks, according to a study published in the journal Marine Drugs. So, be mindful of how much you eat. Wakame is typically eaten raw as a salad or in miso soup and as a pleasantly briny flavor.
Fortified Food & Drinks
While whole foods are the best source, many foods are fortified with calcium. Many plant milks, like soy, almond, oat, and coconut, contain calcium. But not all dairy-free milks are fortified, remember to look at the nutritional label first.
Some cereals and flours are fortified with calcium, but this does not apply to all options. Again, it’s important to look at the label, especially if you are looking to get your calcium from food sources.