Our earliest ancestors didn’t drink milk and didn’t need to worry about calcium at all. Milk didn’t appear in human diets until around 10,000 years ago, and even then it was common only in certain population groups. But anthropologists speculate that the diets of early humans were rich in calcium—with intakes higher than today’s RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for this nutrient—because they dined on calcium-rich greens.
Many of the wild greens they ate are lost to us now, but we still have a variety of calcium-rich veggies plus wonderful plant-based foods that are fortified with this nutrient. Calcium is only part of the story, of course. Strong bones depend on a variety of diet and lifestyle factors. By following a few guidelines—which apply to anyone on any kind of diet—it’s easy to keep bones strong and healthy on a vegan diet.
Aim for 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day—the recommended calcium intake for adults—from foods with well-absorbed calcium. Foods like legumes and whole sesame seeds contain calcium, but it’s attached to other compounds in the food and isn’t absorbed well into the blood. The same is true for a few vegetables like spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard. However, calcium is very well absorbed from kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, broccoli, fortified plant milks, fortified juices and firm tofu made with calcium-sulfate—all good sources of this mineral.
Eat enough protein. The old thinking was that protein leached calcium from bones. Newer research suggests that this isn’t true—and as long as your calcium intake is sufficient, protein is good for your bones. Include at least 3 servings a day of legumes (cooked dried beans, peanuts, or soyfoods) in your diet. Nuts, whole grains and vegetables also provide protein. Soy products like tofu, tempeh and fortified soymilk do double duty in this regard since they provide both calcium and protein.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These foods help keep blood more alkaline which protects bone health. They also contain nutrients—vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and boron—that are important for healthy bones. Diets that are packed with fruits and veggies are associated with stronger bones.
Get adequate vitamin D. Whether they are vegan, vegetarian or a meat-eater—most people depend on sunshine or fortified foods or supplements to meet vitamin D needs. Very few foods are natural sources of this nutrient. Even cow’s milk is a poor source of vitamin D unless it’s fortified. If you live in a sunny area and spend 10 to 20 minutes (the darker your skin, the more exposure you need) during midday on a day when sunburn is possible, you should be set. If not, consider adding a supplement of at least 600 IUs to your daily intake.
Make time for weight-bearing exercise. Exercise that stresses your muscles (like weight lifting) or creates an impact (like jogging) is best for keeping muscles strong. Being sedentary is one of the worst things you can do for your bones.
Watch out for bone thieves: Too much salt and alcohol can sap the strength from your bones. So can fast weight loss.
Here are some super bone-building foods to include in your vegan diet:
|Milligrams of Calcium||Other Bone Benefits|
|Calcium-set firm tofu (made with calcium-sulfate), 1 cup||200-300||Provides protein|
|Leafy greens (bok choy, kale, collards, mustard or turnip greens) 1 cup cooked||100 to 260||Provides vitamin K and potassium|
|Broccoli, 1 cup cooked||60 to 85||Provides vitamin C|
|Fortified orange or tomato juice, 1 cup||300||Provides vitamin C and potassium (choose reduced sodium tomato juice)|
|Fortified soymilk, 1 cup||300||Provides protein|
|Fortified almond, hempseed, rice, oat and coconut milks, 1 cup||300||These milks tend to be low in nutrients, but they are a good source of calcium and vitamin D, and a great alternative to soymilk.|