10 Minute Vegetarian: The Calcium Challenge

Posted Tue, 02/23/2010 - 2:20pm by Denise Reynolds

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Calcium is an essential mineral for many different functions in the human body. In fact, it is the most abundant mineral in the body. Of course, the best-known role of calcium is in the structure and strength of the skeletal bones and the teeth. Some of its lesser-known functions include cell metabolism, muscle contraction, and nerve impulse transmission.

One of the many concerns that you may have when planning a balanced and healthy vegetarian diet is consuming adequate calcium. Most adults need between 1000 and 1200 milligrams of calcium a day. As we get older, calcium absorption decreases in the gastrointestinal tract, so it is important that seniors get the upper end of the range.

Food Sources of Calcium

Lacto-ovo vegetarians rarely have a problem getting enough calcium if they eat (or drink) three servings of dairy products a day. These include cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream.

Vegans need to plan their diets a little more to get enough calcium, but it isn’t hard to do. Many non-dairy foods are good sources of the mineral. Tofu made with calcium sulfate, soybeans, calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, blackstrap molasses, bok choy, broccoli, and leafy greens are all sources of well-absorbed calcium. Whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and some other fruits and vegetables contain lower amounts of calcium as well.

What Else Affects Bone Health?

One of the best ways to keep bones strong and healthy is to exercise at least 30-45 minutes a day. Regular weight-bearing exercise such as walking, running, or aerobic dance is recommended in addition to strength training and flexibility exercises, such as stretching or yoga.

Excess sodium in the diet can increase calcium losses from the bones. The body will lose 5 to 10 milligrams of calcium for each gram of salt eaten. Excess protein in the diet may also cause an increased loss of calcium in the urine and may increase fracture risk. Some research has shown that this is only a factor with animal-based protein, but the evidence is conflicting in some other studies. For now, it is recommended just to get adequate amounts of both calcium and protein from dietary sources.

Too much phosphorus in the diet can cause the body to inadequately absorb calcium from food. Calcium and phosphorus compete for absorption, and phosphorus usually wins. The most highly consumed phosphorus “food” is dark colas which contain phosphoric acid.

Calcium Supplements

If you cannot get enough calcium out of your diet, consider taking a calcium supplement. There are many different brands and sources, and most are obtained from a non-animal source. It is not recommended, however, to take coral calcium or dolomite calcium, as these may contain contaminants.

Be sure to take a calcium supplement that contains vitamin D. This nutrient improves the body’s absorption of calcium. For vegans, choose a calcium/vitamin D supplement that contains Vitamin D2 or ergocalciferol, as this is from a vegan source (yeast).

This is a part of my ongoing series, 10 Minute Vegetarian. I’m busy, you’re busy. We want to be healthy, but we don’t have a lot of time. In the 10 minutes it takes you to read this article, you can learn something about the health benefits of the vegetarian diet and how to implement it in your own hectic schedule.

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