Probably the second-most common question vegan athletes are asked by their non-vegan counterparts is, “How do you get enough calcium?” The daily recommended calcium intake for most adults is well established at 1,000 mg, with increased amounts for pregnant women and the elderly.
While the dairy industry has historically led consumers to believe that the best — and perhaps only — way to get enough calcium for strong bones is to consume dairy products, recent research has debunked that myth.
In fact, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has found that consumption of animal products can actually take away from the body’s calcium supply: “Protein from animal products is much more likely to cause calcium loss than protein from plant foods. This may be one reason that vegetarians tend to have stronger bones than meat-eaters” (just more fodder for your omnivore inquisitors).
Achieving the daily calcium requirement for a runner’s body is entirely possible to do on a plant-based diet and without taking supplements, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
While regular exercise, such as running and strength-training, is cited as one of the best ways to enhance bone health, runners who do not get enough calcium are at particular risk for weakened bones because, as physician and dietician Shawn Dolan explains to Runner’s World, “When the body is low on calcium, it borrows from the skeleton.”
A prolonged period of calcium insufficiency increases the risk of stress fractures in runners, according to dietitian Jackie Dikos. For many runners, stress fractures are one of the most feared running injuries, as they can keep an athlete out of training for weeks, sometimes months. Let’s definitely try to avoid this!
There’s one more element to consider with regard to calcium intake: this particular mineral requires vitamin D for maximum absorption. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D intake for men and women up to age 70 is 600 IU, with up to 2,000 IU recommended in the winter. Because vitamin D is not available in most foods, the most natural way to take in the vitamin is from the sun.
Researchers have suggested that “approximately 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen usually lead to sufficient vitamin D synthesis.”
The variance of time exposed to the sun depends on your skin’s natural pigment: the fairer your skin, the less time in the sun; the darker your skin, the more time in the sun you should spend, within this range. Many runners get at least this much exposure in the warmer seasons, but if you have a history of skin cancer or pre-cancer or live in a region where this sunny days are few and far between, taking vitamin D in supplement form at the recommended amount is considered a safe way to help your body absord the calcium it needs.
Now that we’ve established the importance for consuming sufficient calcium and vitamin D in runners, here are some of the most calcium-rich plant-based foods from which to derive your daily need: soy, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans, oatmeal, molasses and certain fruits. As this extensive list implies, there’s no shortage of calcium in a well-rounded vegan diet. Let’s look at some of the quickest and most delicious ways to consume these foods throughout the day and before and after training:
1. Power-Pack Your Smoothie
Many runners start their morning with a smoothie. You can make a pretty amazing, calcium-rich smoothie simply by including these smoothie-friendly ingredients: leafy greens, nut milk, hemp or chia seeds, and whatever delicious fruits you desire (extra points for calcium-packed blackberries, black currants, oranges, and figs)! How does a Sweet Cherrie Almond Smoothie sound, with calcium-rich almond milk and orange? Or how about a Spring Tune Up Smoothie, with collard greens and hemp and chia seeds? The possibilities are endless!
2. Pre-Make Energy Bars
In one single recipe, you have the calcium-dense ingredients of oats, almonds, cashews, flax seeds, northern beans and molasses! This is an energy bar made for just runners. Baking not your thing? Try the No Bake Superfood Energy Bars, which contain walnuts, almonds, hemp and seeds, and you can even cut the maple syrup with molasses for extra calcium (and iron!). Yum!
3. Drink Your “Milk”
Chocolate milk is a popular recovery drink among runners, but you can make your own plant-based version by swapping out dairy milk for one of your favorite nut or seed milks (I like almond milk or hemp milk), raw cacao powder and a bit of agave to taste. Want to make it all from scratch? Try this recipe for Raw Cacao Milk. For something a bit more decadent, try this Healthy Vegan Chocolate Smoothie/Milkshake, making sure to replace the banana with silken tofu for added calcium.
4. Change Up Your Hummus
If you’re like me, hummus is a go-to food for satiating hunger pangs and providing energy and protein for training. While the traditional garbanzo-bean recipe is great (and typically includes calcium-rich tahini), you can up your calcium intake by using northern white beans, navy beans or edamame instead of or in addition to the standard chickpeas. This Oil-free Kale-Edamame Hummus recipe utilizes both calcium-laden edamame (soy) and kale! Or perhaps this Smoky White Bean and Roasted Yellow Pepper Hummus whets your appetite. Whichever recipe you settle on, use some broccoli florets as dippers to add even more calcium. It’s almost too easy.
5. Pack Some Trail Mix
Preparing your own snack packs will ensure that you have healthy vegan food at hand when hunger strikes. To help meet your daily calcium needs, make sure to include foods such as nuts, seeds, oats, currants and figs. Here’s a basic method for making your own Amazing Superfood Trail Mix.
If all that sounds like too much work, maybe these simple Baked Kale Chips will better fit into your hectic schedule. You have tons of options for including calcium into your daily diet, and now you have no good excuse not to. Remember that healthy bones will keep you running stronger, longer!
Image source: Charlie Llewellin/Flickr