Calcium isn't just for old people who worry about osteoporosis or risk of fractures. It's an essential mineral that helps your muscles to contract and your heart to beat, your blood to clot, and yes, your bones to get stronger.  It also keeps you from gaining weight since the more calcium in your diet the more likely you'll burn off energy rather than store it as fat.

Here are the best plant-based foods to help you get the calcium you need when you're not eating dairy (either because you're plant-based or lactose intolerant) and you need to pay attention. But first, let's look at the importance of calcium and the right amount to shoot for.

It's hard to get enough calcium on any diet, much less a plant-based or non-dairy one. The recommended daily intake of calcium is around 1,200 mg to 1300 mg a day, which equals two to three portions of dairy, or the equivalent. Calcium has an important role to play in bone strength and also contributes to muscle contraction, nerve transmission, cellular signaling, and prevention of weight gain, among other essential jobs in the body, 

Even for someone consuming dairy, it is difficult to reach these requirements. Add a special diet, such as a dairy-free, low-fat or plant-based diet to the mix and your intake of calcium generally falls well below the recommended daily requirements.

Calcium Builds Strong Bones and Signals Fat Cells to Burn More Readily

Most of us will live into old age when osteoporosis becomes a risk, and suddenly getting enough calcium jumps to the top of your list of dietary priorities, where it belongs. In a study in the lab, the more calcium you have in your fat cells, the more likely they are to burn off as fuel. 

The good news is that it's actually possible to get enough calcium, if you know where to look, to build bone strength and prevent weight gain. Your best bet: head to the produce aisle.

First of all, we may be able to lower those ambitious goal numbers: In a review article by the Harvard Medical School, the recommended daily value was challenged and the calcium intake that is advised is between 500mg and 700mg daily. This equates to the more achievable one to two portions of calcium-rich foods per day.  What is a portion of dairy replacement exactly?

Here are a few examples of one portion of plant-based dairy replacement:

  • 8 ounces (225 grams) of frozen collard greens, frozen kale, or edamame
  • 1 cup of fortified plant-based milk
  • Half a cup of tofu prepared with calcium

There are other foods, such as oranges, dried fruit, nuts (especially almonds), and broccoli that contain smaller amounts of calcium, and when you track your total daily amount of calcium it adds up quickly. Recent evidence indicates that a plant-based diet can provide adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D. The study concluded that "there is no evidence that a plant-based diet, when carefully chosen to maintain adequate calcium and vitamin D levels, has any detrimental effects on bone health."

Plant-Based Diets Are Healthier Choices than Ones That Skip Fruit, Like Keto

Other research shows plant-based diets may lower the risk of osteoporosis, even in postmenopausal women most at risk. What is interesting is that when it comes to bone strength, fruit consumption seems to impart a greater benefit than vegetables, which makes long term ketogenic diets that exclude fruits a less healthy diet choice. The exact mechanism is still not known, but it may involve the interplay between phytonutrients, prebiotics and probiotics and immune and inflammatory responses in the body.

Are there any risks involved if one sticks to the lower recommended amounts of  500 mg to 700 mg of calcium a day? Studies have shown that increased calcium intake generally does not increase bone strength or prevent osteoporotic fractures, although it may reduce the development of atherosclerosis. There is, however, a critical level of 400 mg, below which the risk of vertebral fractures increases. Interestingly, weight-bearing exercise is an often overlooked and major contributor to bone health. Regular exercise, in fact, significantly reduces the risk of developing vertebral fractures, irrespective of the calcium intake above the 400mg threshold. The best bet, a study in Italy found, is to both get exercise and eat calcium-rich foods. 

Supplementing calcium intake can do more harm than good, since calcium supplements, particularly above 500mg a day were found to increase coronary artery calcification, with a  higher risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly myocardial infarctions. So while eating more calcium does not appear to increase risk of heart disease, taking it in supplement form does. 

 In addition, calcium supplements, especially when combined with vitamin D supplements, may increase the risk of kidney stones, one study found. So how to get your calcium on a plant-based diet? Simply eat these even foods as often as possible.

Here Are The 7 Best Sources of Calcium on a Plant-Based Diet:

In addition, calcium supplements, especially when combined with vitamin D supplements, may increase the risk of kidney stones, one study found. So how to get your calcium on a plant-based diet? Simply eat these seven foods as often as possible.

Here are the 7 best sources of calcium on a plant-based diet:

1. Green leafy greens such as collard greens and kale

2. Soy-based products such as tofu prepared with calcium sulphate

3. Legumes such as edamame, chickpeas and white beans

4. Calcium-fortified plant-based milks and yogurts

5. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals

6. Sesame seeds or Tahini

7. Nuts especially almonds

And keep in mind that in order to maintain healthy bones, add daily exercise to your routine, preferably outdoors to get vitamin D by exposing skin to sunlight for short amounts of time each day. Meanwhile avoid habits that damage your bones, such as smoking, overuse of alcohol and soft drink consumption.

Dr. Antonella Grima, MD, is a Public Health Specialist and registered nutritionist. She has obtained her Master of Science in Public Health and a postgraduate diploma in Nutrition and Dietetics. Her areas of interest include prevention, chronic diseases, and intestinal health.

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