I get this question often about people worrying that they won’t get enough calcium from a plant-based diet. Mostly they have been marketed to, like most of us have, to believe that they have to drink milk or consume lots of dairy products to get enough calcium. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Actually, when you look at the WHOLE picture you find something a little more interesting about dairy and strong bones.
Does cow’s milk make strong bones?
First of all, you need to know that dairy is an animal product and that all animal products are acidic and raise your pH balance. To keep your pH levels normal, your body has to neutralize the acidity with something. Can you guess what with? Calcium. Straight from your bones.
So that means that whenever you consume dairy products, that your body then leaches calcium FROM your bones to balance out your pH levels. The calcium contained IN the dairy you consumed is NOT enough to balance the calcium you lost from your bones. You end up with a net LOSS of calcium.
That means that not only does milk NOT make strong bones. It ACTUALLY makes them weaker over time.
Countries with highest dairy intake have highest osteoporosis levels
This is backed up in epidemiological studies that show that the countries with the HIGHEST consumption of dairy also have the HIGHEST levels of osteoporosis. If milk truly was the answer, then this would be the opposite.
Actually studies have shown that countries with the highest fruit & vegetable intake had the lowest risk of osteoporosis.
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Calcium Plant Food Sources
So, now what about plant foods and getting calcium that way? Plants are alkaline and do not raise your pH levels. Right off the bat, you are not taking calcium out.
Secondly, calcium is found in many plant sources in varying levels. Dark leafy greens, beans, seeds, nuts, & tofu have very high levels. Here is a list of many plant sources of calcium:
Approximate Amounts of Calcium in Plant-Foods:
- 8 oz fortified plant milk – 300 mg
- 1 cup soybeans, boiled – 261 mg
- 1 cup spinach, boiled – 245 mg
- 1/2 cup tofu – 200 mg
- 1 cup cooked kale, collard, mustard, or turnip greens – 200 mg
- 1 tablespoon Blackstrap molasses – 200 mg
- 1/2 cup edamame – 100 mg
- 1 cup canned chickpeas – 100 mg
- 2 tablespoons almond butter or tahini – 100 mg
- 1 cup cooked bok choy – 100 mg
- 1/2 cup tempeh – 100 mg
- 1 cup butternut squash – 84 mg
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds – 75 mg
- 5 dried figs – 75 mg
- 1 cup brown rice – 63 mg
- 1 cup sweet potato – 60 mg
- 8 brussel sprouts – 60 mg
- 1 cup greens beans – 55 mg
- 2/3 cup raisins – 54 mg
- 1 cup cook broccoli – 50 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked navy beans – 50 mg
- 1 navel orange – 50 mg
- 2 tablespoons raw almonds – 50 mg
- 3 tablespoons ground flax seeds – 50 mg
- 1 cup old fashioned oats – 40 mg
- 1/2 cup quinoa – 40 mg
- 1 cup blackberries – 40 mg
- 1 cup raspberries – 30 mg
- 1/4 cup walnuts – 30 mg
- 1/2 cup kiwi – 30 mg
- 1/2 cup black beans – 25 mg
- 1 cup whole wheat pasta – 25 mg
- 1/2 cup red kidney beans – 25 mg
- 1/2 cup green peas – 20 mg
- 1 cup cauliflower – 20 mg
- 1/2 cup carrots – 20 mg
- 1/4 cup dried apricots – 20 mg
- 1/2 cup arugula – 16 mg
- 1/2 cup papaya – 15 mg
- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour – 10 mg
- 1/2 an avocado – 10 mg
- 1/2 cup pineapple – 10 mg
This is list is not exhaustive! It just gives you an idea of the wide array of plant foods that have calcium.
Some foods like spinach, swiss chard, & beet greens have high levels of calcium, but also contain high levels of oxalates which can bind to the calcium so that all of it isn’t absorbed. Boiling can reduce oxalate levels so that more of the calcium is absorbed.
Calcium RDA levels
Lastly, the calcium RDAs are based on meat eaters who need to consume much more calcium to counteract their acidic diet, so it is likely that anyone consuming a plant-based diet may need less calcium intake to meet their needs. Studies from China showed that the Chinese were consuming only a moderate level of calcium, (not from dairy) yet had little osteoporosis. Compared to American women who were consuming 2-3 times as much calcium, from dairy sources, and had much higher levels of osteoporosis. Calcium & Osteoporosis References: The China Study by Dr. Colin T. Campbell & Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
Nevertheless, it is pretty easy to meet the standard RDAs (1000 mg for ages 18-70) on a vegan diet without much effort. Just take a look from that list above! Calcium is in almost all plant foods at varying levels.
As long as you are eating a variety of different whole plant foods on a daily basis, you should not have to worry about calcium or weak bones.
In fact, if you are eating these types of plant foods your bones will be even stronger because of all the OTHER minerals that you will also get that are important for bone health like phosphorus & magnesium. Calcium is not the only mineral that is important for strong bones.
Other factors that affect calcium in bones
These dietary factors also leach calcium from bones:
- animal protein
- refined sugar
- vitamin A supplements
- aluminum containing antacids
- antibiotics, steroids, & thyroid hormone drugs
So you can see how Americans who consume a lot of dairy, animal protein, refined sugar, salt, & alcohol and not much fruits & vegetables would have weakening bones. There is just such a high negative calcium balance over time due to these multiple factors. Calcium supplements do little to negate such a large loss.
Exercise & Vitamin D
Exercise & Vitamin D are also very important. Weight bearing exercise increases bone density as well as muscle mass which is important in reducing hip fractures in the elderly.
Vitamin D helps control how your body uses calcium. Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin” and all you need is 15 minutes in direct sunlight daily (without sunscreen). However, if you live in a northern climate or stay in doors often, then a daily supplement can be taken. Resource from: https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-information/health-concerns-about-dairy/calcium-and-strong-bones
Conclusion on Milk?
Milk probably doesn’t do a body good and is not only unnecessary for strong bones, it possibly makes them weaker. We have to look at the whole picture and how a certain food as a whole affects the entire body system, not just the individual nutrients it may contain.
Dairy is also very high in saturated fat & cholesterol. Plants give you plenty of calcium, doesn’t take calcium out of bones, has other bone minerals like magnesium & phosphorus, and doesn’t contain high levels of saturated fat & cholesterol along with it.
What are some other things that plants come with besides calcium? Dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, omega 3 fatty acids, phytochemicals, antioxidants, oh yeah, and plenty of protein.
Calcium-rich Whole Food Plant Based Recipes
Need some calcium rich plant-based recipes? Here are some really tasty ones:
- Fruit & Greens Smoothie
- Tofu Scramble Breakfast Burritos
- Strawberry Spinach Salad with Almonds
- Crispy Baked Tofu Marinara Fingers
- Quinoa Stuffed Acorn Squash
- Sweet & Creamy Chickpea Salad Sandwich
- Easy Hummus Lettuce Boats
- Tangy Spinach Hummus
- Vegan Autumn Squash Soup
- Slow Cooker Curry Red Lentil Soup
- Lentil Peanut Butter Cookies
- 5 Easy Chia Seed Puddings
- Garlic Roasted Brussel Sprouts & Tomatoes
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