How to Get Enough Calcium on a Dairy Free or Plant-Based Diet

Danielle Omar, MS, RD Calcium and Bone Health 1 Comment

Image by francois schnell

Image by francois schnell

In 2010 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released updated recommendations for daily intake levels of vitamin D and calcium. The 14-member task force performed a thorough review of nearly 1,000 published studies to determine new daily intakes, based on their roles in bone health and disease prevention.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how to meet calcium and vitamin D needs on a plant-based diet. I can totally relate to this, as I don’t drink milk and my dairy intake is generally less than routine.

I encourage my clients and my Food Confidence community to ask their doctor to measure Vitamin D blood levels during their yearly physical. I also recommended Cal-EZ for those of us who simply don’t meet our needs each day.

How much calcium is enough?

The IOM panel recommended that for optimal bone health adults between 19 and 50 years old (and men through age 71) need 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Women over 51 and men over 71 need 1,200 mg/day.
Everyone over age one needs about 600 IU/day of Vitamin D, with those over age 71 needing up to 800 IU/day. These intake recommendations are a 200-400 IU / day increase over previous recommendations.

How does this play out on your plate?

If you tolerate dairy, you’re in luck. One 8-oz. glass of milk provides 285 mg of highly absorbable calcium. If you can take in 3-4 eight ounce glasses per day, you would meet your needs. But not all of us can tolerate milk or want to drink that much every single day. For vegetarians, vegans, and plant-based eaters like myself, knowing where to find absorbable calcium from plant foods becomes super important.

Plant foods containing calcium include most of your leafy greens like collards, mustard, kale, and bok choy, as well as broccoli. Calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified soy, and calcium-fortified nut milks are also a great option.
Beans like edamame, adzuki, black, great northern, chickpeas, kidney, and navy beans are also great sources, as are nuts like almonds (and almond butter), pistachios, pecans, Brazil nuts, and walnuts. You can also seek out calcium-fortified orange juice, seaweed, dried figs, Chinese cabbage, and okra.

When it comes to vitamin D, the best source is good ol’ sunlight! Our body can make all the vitamin D we need with adequate sun exposure. The problem is that most of us don’t get the requisite 10-25 minutes in the sun each day, especially in the colder winter months.

Relying on diet alone for Vitamin D is a problem, as natural plant sources of Vitamin D are limited. The most prevalent plant sources are fortified foods like milk and nut milks, yogurt, orange juice and cereals. The IOM recommends a supplement for those who do not get regular sun exposure.

How to Prevent Calcium Loss

To keep your bones healthy and your calcium stores optimized you might want to also consider some of the lifestyle factors that affect calcium loss from the body. Consuming a diet that is super high in animal protein is one of them. According to the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine, protein from animal products is much more likely to cause calcium losses through urine than protein from plant foods. You can also watch your daily caffeine and sodium intake, as both also contribute to urine calcium loss