(DISCLAIMER: I am not a Registered Dietician or medical professional. If you have concerns about your nutritional requirements, please consult with a medical professional to ensure that your food selections meet your individual needs.)
We’ve all heard out entire lives the familiar phrase “Milk: It does a body good.” Why? Because milk and other dairy products are where you get your calcium! Right?
Well, yes – dairy is one of many sources of dietary calcium. There are also supplements, and there are a multitude of plant foods high in calcium, as I discuss below.
How much calcium do you need?
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily intake for adults (men and women) aged 18-50 is 1,000 mg per day. For women over the age of 50, the recommended minimum goes up to 1,300 mg, presumably due to the prevalence of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women and the subsequent elevated risk for fractures.
How much is absorbed at one time?
Last week, I touched on the fact that iron from food or supplements can only be absorbed in limited amounts at one time. Similarly, the Office of Dietary Supplements tells us that the body only absorbs 500 mgs of calcium at a time. In other words, don’t waste your money on a 1,000 mg calcium supplement unless you plan to take half a tablet, chew, etc. twice a day. Likewise, there’s no benefit to consuming more than 500 mg of calcium at one meal. If adequate calcium intake is a concern for you, bear this in mind and space out your calcium-rich foods and/or supplements in order to fully reap the benefits.
Other important considerations
#1: Calcium will not be adequately absorbed in the absence of vitamin D.
Two ways to deal with this are to:
Take a calcium supplement that also contains vitamin D. According to The Diabetes Council, vegan D3 supplements are available which are made from lichen extractions instead of the meat and dairy products of which the more conventional vitamin D supplements are comprised.
Go out in the sun without sunscreen, at any time of year, for minimum 13 minutes, preferably at midday. The short version is that the sun’s UVB rays convert cholesterol in your skin to the form of vitamin D that makes it possible to absorb calcium. (There’s all kinds of interesting reading on this topic in this article, so if you’re interested in learning more, head over there.)
#2: Weight-bearing exercise programs the body to stockpile calcium in the bones.
Conversely, bone loss in sedentary individuals is a prime example of the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle at work in nature. This generally doesn’t affect us as athletes, but if you should ever find yourself having to go on an extended hiatus from running due to injury, be mindful of this fact when designing your alternative exercise plan for active recovery. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is this:
(Still reading, ladies over the age of 50?)
Don’t turn into a sloth just because you can’t run. Laziness makes brittle bones!
So knowing what we now know about calcium requirements, absorption and the need for weight-bearing exercise, exactly which plant foods are high enough in calcium to help us meet our daily requirements and also help us power our workouts?
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine provides a comprehensive list of plant foods containing calcium here, and from it I have pulled the “baker’s dozen” of the foods highest in calcium. Here they are!
Butternut squash (1 cup, baked): 84 mg
Collards (1 cup, boiled) 266 mg
Kale (1 cup, boiled) 94 mg
Black beans (1 cup, boiled): 102
Great Northern beans (1 cup, boiled): 120
Navy beans (1 cup, boiled): 126
White beans (1 cup, boiled): 161
Soybeans (1 cup, boiled): 175
Soy milk (1 cup, calcium-fortified): 368
Rice milk (1 cup, enriched): 300
Tofu (½ cup, raw, firm): 253
10 dried figs: 140
Orange juice (1 cup, calcium-fortified): 300
*Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Calcium in Plant-Based Diets. http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vsk/vegetarian-starter-kit-calcium
The good news, as you can see above, is that there are a lot of tasty options for vegan runners to consume enough calcium! I’ve taken many of these and come up with food combinations below, just to show you, like I did last week with iron, how a meal plan emphasizing calcium from plant foods might come together.
The possibilities here are infinitely many, even with a list as short as this. (Hmm, maybe one day I’ll develop a lengthier meal plan…) These are literally the first ideas that come to mind and are somewhat seasonal, as I’m writing at the height of summer. As you read on, you’ll see just how easy it is to get to 1,000 mg even without taking full advantage of the calcium-fortified options.
And with that, I give you the…
Cold-soaked oatmeal in a jar with 1.5 cups soy milk, cinnamon, ginger, sweetener, raisins and a dash of nutmeg.
Calcium intake: 552 mg
Baked BBQ tofu sandwich with 1.5 cups collard slaw (don’t knock it ‘til you try it!).
Calcium intake (assuming ½ cup tofu and 1 cup collards plus ½ cup carrot and onion): 519 mg
10 dried figs (why not?)
Calcium intake: 140 mg
Pasta layered with sauteed kale, mashed butternut squash (with ground sage, Earth Balance and brown sugar) and cannellini beans.
Calcium intake (assuming ½ cup of each item plus 1.5 cups pasta): 169 mg
And of course, if you’re concerned about taking in enough calories to power your workouts, you can always add any of the items discussed here to your meals and/or snacks.
In the near future, I will be expanding on the topic of dairy vs. the alternatives as well as the benefits and culinary uses of plant milks, vegan cheeses, etc.
So what are your top concerns related to dietary calcium? Do you have any questions about or difficulty deciding which dairy alternatives to buy at the store? Let me know in the comments, and I will be happy to answer!