This blog post is also available in German.
A glass of milk every day makes the bones strong and healthy! How many of us grew up with that sentence? The opinion that milk is healthy is strongly anchored in our population. It`s almost a dogma. All the more often you hear statements about a plant-based diet, such as: “where do you get the calcium from if you don’t consume milk?” or “it’s super unhealthy for the bones not to drink milk”. You may already be familiar with such conversations. Or maybe you’re simply toying with the idea of eating more plant-based foods and worrying about getting into a calcium deficiency. In this article I`d like to take away this fear. To show you that a balanced plant-based diet does not lead to calcium deficits*. And to dispel the myth that “milk is healthy”. You`ll also learn which 20 foods are great sources of plant-based calcium.
Why our body needs calcium
Calcium is one of the most important minerals for our body. We need calcium for building bones and teeth, as well as for our muscles, the proper function of our heart and the transmission of stimuli in the nerve cells. Calcium is also an important substance for blood clotting. For the full functionality of our body, our cells are also dependent on calcium to work correctly. Calcium is particularly important for children and young people who are still growing. But of course also for adults and elderly people.
The recommended daily requirement for adults is 1000mg per day. Adolescents in the growth phase and pregnant women should take 1200mg and nursing mothers even 1300mg daily.
What are the consequences of a calcium deficiency
99% of the calcium is stored in the bones. Our body can store both calcium into the bone, as well as releasing it again from the bone into the bloodstream. If there`s a calcium deficiency – in other words, too little calcium is taken in with food – then calcium is broken down from the bones and released into the blood so that all important processes in the body can be maintained. If this happens over a longer period of time, it can lead to bone loss (=osteoporosis) and decalcification of the bones. The bones become brittle and fragile and the risk of fractures increases. This is one of the most well-known consequences of a calcium deficiency.
Of course, a calcium deficiency also has a negative influence on other functions. The stability of the teeth can decrease, the function of the heart, muscles, kidneys, lungs and nerve cells can also be affected.
Other factors can cause or promote calcium deficiency (independent of food intake). For example:
- vitamin D deficiency
- hormonal disorders
- calcium intake disorders
- certain drugs
- elevated phosphate levels
- certain diseases (thyroid or kidney diseases)
- pregnancy & lactation
- high sporting activity (competitive athletes)
- digestive disorders
Myth Milk – Is it really that healthy?
One thing is for sure, when it comes to milk the spirits are at odds. Some are completely convinced that we need milk. The other group is of the opinion that milk is for baby cows and that we, as adults, don`t need baby cows food. I represent the second group with my opinion. Cow’s milk is intended for calves, it helps the little calves to grow into handsome cows / bulls within a few months. Of course it`s rich in important minerals and amino acids, but it also contains growth hormones. Although the absorption of these hormones via our digestive system is low and no connection between oestrogens in cow’s milk and an increased risk of cancer has been proven up to now. In principle, I think that we don`t really need food intended for baby cows.
Does milk really make the bones strong?
Probably the best known milk advertising slogan is “milk makes your bones strong”. A study from Sweden shakes this deeply rooted dogma. This study shows a possible increased risk of osteoporosis with higher milk consumption. This assumption is supported by the fact that the osteoporosis rate in countries with lower milk intake – such as Asia and Africa – is significantly lower than in Europe, where milk is consumed regularly. This could be related to the fact that certain substances in milk cause inflammatory reactions in our body and thus represent oxidative stress for our body.
Although a harmful effect hasn`t yet been proven, the argument that milk makes our bones strong must be questioned. Yes, actually it`s not true. Milk has no proven advantages over plant-based calcium sources. In addition, milk contains animal fats and thus cholesterol, which can lead to fatty and calcified blood vessels (arteriosclerosis) if consumed in excess over a longer period of time.
In addition, the calcium intake from some plant-based sources can be twice as high as from cow’s milk. The statement that calcium from plant sources is less easily absorbed is therefore simply false.
Vitamin D & K2 – Why they are so important
However, calcium alone will not prevent you from developing osteoporosis at a later age. In addition to environmental factors and genetic conditions, vitamin D and vitamin K2, along with countless other minerals, also play an important role. In order for calcium to be fully absorbed via the small intestine, a sufficient supply of vitamin D is essential. If there`s a vitamin D deficiency, it`s not possible to absorb sufficient calcium despite a sufficient supply.
Just as important as vitamin D is vitamin K2. Why you might ask yourself? Because calcium is desirable in the bones, but not in excessive amounts in the blood. This is because it can lead to calcium deposits on the walls of the blood vessels and thus to vascular calcification. Vitamin K2 prevents exactly that. It prevents calcium from accumulating in the blood vessels and promotes the storage of calcium in the bones. Thus, a sufficient supply of vitamin K2 not only prevents arteriosclerosis but also osteoporosis. It`s therefore always recommended to supplement vitamin D in combination with vitamin K2. Because a sufficient vitamin D supply alone doesn`t guarantee that the calcium really gets into the bones. It only ensures that the calcium ingested can be sufficiently absorbed from the small intestine. It needs K2 for storage in the bones.
20 plant sources of calcium
A plant-based diet is not associated with an increased risk of calcium deficiency, as long as you make sure you get enough calcium from calcium-rich plant foods. In the following list, you will find 20 sources of calcium from plants only. This list is intended to serve as an overview and guideline and to make it easier for you to get enough calcium in your daily life. I have also compiled all 20 plant sources of calcium in a fact sheet. You can download it, pin it on Pinterest or print it out and hang it up somewhere where it`s clearly visible.
- stinging nettles
- sesame seeds
- chia seeds
- mineral water
- calcium enriched plant milk
- tofu containing calcium sulphate
- brazil nuts
- dried seaweed
- dried figs
- white beans
Spinach and chard are also very rich in calcium. However, the calcium absorption from these two vegetables is rather poor and is only 5%. Which is why I haven`t listed them here as plant-based sources of calcium.
Vegetable milk is in principle low in calcium. However, there are many manufacturers who enrich their milks with calcium. Therefore, when buying plant milk, always prefer those varieties that are enriched with calcium. If you make your own plant milk, you must ensure that you get enough calcium from other sources.
Certain types of tofu – such as Taifun Tofu* – can also be enriched with calcium. If you find calcium sulphate in the ingredients, you can assume that the tofu contains calcium. For this reason, tofu and vegetable milk are also very good sources of vegetable calcium, as long as they are enriched.
With regard to sustainability
If you – like me – are living a sustainable lifestyle with a focus on regionality, seasonality and very little packaging waste, some of the above mentioned sources will naturally be omitted. However, as you can see, there are enough other options available to ensure that you can easily meet your daily needs. In this case you should simply consume larger quantities of these products than someone who doesn`t pay attention to sustainability.
The fear of a vegan diet causing a calcium deficiency is something you can safely forget. As long as you eat a balanced and healthy diet, there`s no such risk. Hopefully I could take away your fear with this article. If you`re interested in the topic of plant nutrition, then take a look at this blog post.
If these tips were helpful and you learned something new about plant-based sources of calcium, I would be very happy about your feedback in the comments.
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*This statement is based on the assumption that you do not suffer from any disease or calcium absorption disorder. In such cases you should always consult your doctor. Regular medical check-ups are also recommended for vegan diets for children, especially toddlers. As children are generally very selective eaters and may not like all calcium-rich plant options.
*All products mentioned here are personal recommendations and not affiliates or sponsored advertising
Niko Rittenau: Vegan-Klischee ade!