As soon as you decide to eliminate dairy from your diet you can be sure that everyone will suddenly become very concerned about where you’re going to get your calcium. Thankfully for those wishing to avoid the health and ethical issues related to dairy, calcium is abundant in a plant-based diet. Here are eight of the best places to find it.
1. Fortified plant milks and yoghurts
Not all food additives are bad and this is especially true of fortified dairy alternatives. Most non-dairy milks, yoghurts and even some cheeses, are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and in some cases, iodine. Using fortified plant milk on your porridge, in your oat latte and in your morning smoothie is therefore a great way to get that extra assurance that you’ll achieve your recommended daily dose of calcium – 700 milligrams a day.
2. Fortified breakfast cereals
What better to pour your fortified plant milk over than fortified breakfast cereal?! Ready Brek, for example, is fortified with B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and iron. A 30 gram serving contains over half of our required daily intake of calcium… and that’s before any fortified milk has been added. Just be mindful of cereals that contain a lot of added sugar, preservatives and artificial flavourings.
3. Calcium-set tofu (and other soya foods)
A block of unseasoned, wobbly tofu dumped on top of a salad is enough to put anyone off but once you learn how to cook it in a variety of ways, its delicious potential can be realised. Whether you make it nice and crispy for a stir-fry, have it scrambled on toast or simply wedge a marinated piece between two slices of bread, calcium-set tofu is an excellent source of calcium. Just check for calcium sulphate in the ingredients but most firm tofu contains it. Fermented soya foods such as tempeh and natto are also great sources of calcium.
4. Dark leafy greens eg kale
If we could only eat one vegetable, kale would have to come top of the list (but don’t do that – eat many!). As well as delivering a powerful dose of antioxidants, iron, vitamin A and fibre, kale is also high in calcium. It can be tenderised (chop it into small pieces, drizzle with some oil and gently massage the leaves) and enjoyed raw in a salad, lightly steamed and eaten with a roast dinner, or simply thrown straight into a smoothie. Other greens rich in calcium include broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spring greens. Although spinach contains a lot of calcium, it is also high in oxalate which hinders the mineral’s absorption so it shouldn’t be relied upon as a calcium source (it’s still good for you though!).
Eating small amounts of nuts regularly is associated with some pretty big health benefits, including lower blood cholesterol levels and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome (precursor to diabetes). They’re also a handy way to clock up some calcium. Of all nuts, almonds contain the most calcium but, like spinach, they are also high in oxalate so they shouldn’t be relied upon exclusively, and those prone to kidney stones may need to avoid them. Other nuts, including walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, pistachios and Brazil nuts are all excellent sources of calcium.
6. Dried apricots, dates, figs and prunes
Dried apricots, dates, figs and prunes are all great sources of calcium in a small energy-packed snack. Figs are especially high in calcium and vitamin K – another important micronutrient for bone health. The only issue with these fruits is that you don’t want to eat too many at once. Firstly, their high sugar content can spike your blood sugar levels – we probably wouldn’t eat six whole apricots in one go but it’s dangerously easier to eat six dried ones – and secondly, they are so high in fibre that they can have a laxative effect. So, regard these fruits as a small part of your daily calcium dose but definitely don’t rely on them alone!
7. Sesame seeds/Tahini
Eating sesame seeds or sesame seed paste (tahini) is a tasty and nutritious way to get a calcium boost. Just one heaped tablespoon of tahini or sesame seeds meets almost a fifth of your daily needs.
Tahini is incredibly versatile and can be used as a dressing with salads and wraps, in a stir-fry, to make hummus and even in smoothies and creamy soups! Sesame seeds too are an easy addition to a tofu dish, or sprinkled on a curry, stir-fries or salads – they’re extra tasty when they are toasted. If you’ve ever eaten halva – a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dessert – you’ll know that there’s more to tahini than just falafel dressing!
They’re often championed for their protein and fibre but beans, peas and lentils also contain good amounts of calcium. Chick peas, kidney beans and pinto beans all contribute generously to our calcium intake. You might not know it, but white and brown bread have to be fortified with calcium by law in the UK so, although we’d usually recommend wholegrain bread, beans on toast can actually be a great way of getting some calcium.
Our body absorbs calcium best in small doses so we don’t need to rely on just one food which is extremely high in the mineral if we are eating a variety of foods like those above over the course of the day. But bone health comes down to many factors, not just calcium. We need vitamin D for our body to absorb the calcium it consumes and vitamin K to help turn it into bone – this is why a carefully planned and varied plant-based diet is needed. Don’t forget to take a vitamin D supplement from October to March (or all year round if you don’t spend much time outside) and make sure you’re doing some weight-bearing exercise to keep your bones strong.