If you’re trying to avoid dairy, you might think you’re out of luck when it comes to calcium. But there are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium that can help you meet your daily calcium needs. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements, most adults need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. You should aim for about 1,200 mg a day if you’re over 50 years of age.
The Best Sources of Calcium
Dairy foods top the list of calcium-rich foods, but plants are also a respectable source of calcium. One downside is that plants also contain anti-nutrients, compounds that reduce the absorption of minerals from plant-based foods, including zinc, iron, and calcium. For example, lentils, beans, whole grains, and peanuts contain lectins and phytates, while leafy greens contain oxalates, which reduce calcium absorption when you eat these foods.
So, even though plants contain significant calcium, you may not get the full benefits because anti-nutrients reduce its absorption. The bioavailability of calcium from plant-based foods is lower than from dairy products. But even though you must consume more plant foods than dairy products to get the same amount of calcium, plant-based foods provide many other health benefits that dairy products do not – so they are still a nutritious choice. However, there are ways to improve the amount of calcium you get from plant-based foods. Let’s look at some of those.
Soak Legumes Before Cooking Them
One way to reduce phytates and lectins in legumes is to soak them for 8 hours and discard the water before cooking them. Pre-soaking and pouring off the water reduce the number of anti-nutrients in your legumes that interfere with how much calcium your gut absorbs. Soaking also shortens the cooking time for legumes, so you can enjoy your legumes faster, and they are more digestible too. Enjoy legumes! They’re an excellent source of plant-based protein. But if you have time, soak them before cooking them.
Prepare Leafy Greens with Lemon Juice or Vinegar
How many times have you heard that you should eat more leafy greens? No wonder! They’re packed with nutrients and antioxidants. They also contain minerals, including calcium, but you won’t absorb all the calcium. The reason? Oxalic acid, which is found in spinach and rhubarb, binds to calcium to form calcium oxalate, which cannot be absorbed by the body. Other leafy greens contain varying quantities of oxalic acid, with beet greens, spinach, and Swiss chard having the highest quantities.
One way to increase the amount of calcium you absorb from a bowl of leafy greens is to prepare them with a mild acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Doing this will boost the amount of calcium your body gains when you eat a bowl of leafy greens.
Consume Calcium-Fortified Foods
If you don’t consume dairy products, you can get substantial calcium by consuming foods fortified with calcium. For example, a cup of calcium-fortified orange juice contains around 350 milligrams of calcium, more than a glass of milk. Some plant-based milk substitutes, including soy milk, coconut, almond, and oat milk, may also contain calcium. Read labels carefully, because not all brands are fortified or contain the same amount per serving. Be aware that not all calcium-fortified are healthy. Some contain lots of added sugar. If possible, get your calcium from whole foods instead.
Don’t Overdo the Caffeine
Studies show that caffeinated beverages slightly increase the amount of calcium you excrete in your urine, lowering your body’s calcium stores. However, this effect is so modest that you can easily make up for it by eating more calcium-rich foods. All in all, this doesn’t appear to be a major cause of calcium loss and shouldn’t have a major impact on your calcium status, even if you are a coffee lover. In fact, some recent studies show regular coffee drinkers have higher bone density than non-coffee drinkers. But be cautious, and don’t overdo the caffeine.
Keep Your Vitamin D Level Up
When you have a healthy vitamin D level, you’re better able to absorb calcium from your gut and reabsorb it at the level of the kidneys. If you are not able to get enough sun exposure, at least 15 minutes most days of the week, you may need to take supplemental vitamin D to maintain healthy vitamin D. One way to find out where you stand is to ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level and make sure it’s in a healthy range. Vitamin D may be important for more than bone health too. Research shows a low vitamin D level may negatively impact your immune system too.
The Bottom Line
Make sure you get enough calcium in your diet from plant sources if you do not consume dairy. You need calcium for healthy bones and on a minute-by-minute basis for other functions too. But also make sure you’re absorbing adequate calcium from the plant-based foods you eat. One way to do that is to ad a little lemon juice or vinegar to your greens.
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