Your Guide to the Best Vegan Sources of Calcium
If you look at food advertising, especially in the United States, it would seem as though the only food source that provides calcium is dairy-based milk.
These commercials (paid for by, you guessed it, the dairy industry) would have you believe that unless you’re sporting an iconic “milk mustache”, there’s simply no way to get enough of this vital mineral to keep your bones healthy and strong.
In reality, milk isn’t the only - or even best - food source of calcium.
In fact, calcium is found beyond the dairy aisle, naturally occurring in a wide variety of plant foods, and added to many other vegan-friendly foods and beverages.
So if you’re not going to turn to cow’s milk for calcium anymore, where should you get it, and how much will you be consuming?
Let’s take a closer look at our favorite vegan-friendly calcium powerhouses.
Top Vegan-Friendly Calcium Sources
Soy milk, fortified
Orange juice, fortified
Collard greens, cooked
Soy is such a wonder food - it seems that no matter what kind of nutritional article we’re writing, soy makes it onto the list.
In addition to its already impressive resume of protein and vitamin content, soy milk tops the list for calcium delivery per serving.
Just one cup of soy milk added to your coffee, smoothie, or oatmeal, gets you almost 40% of your daily calcium goal, all for basically no effort involved.
Much of the calcium in foods like soymilk, orange juice, cereal, and other fortified foods is added in during processing, so if you’re looking for a good calcium boost, be sure to reach for the fortified stuff instead of homemade.
To make sure the calcium doesn’t separate from the liquid and settle at the bottom of the carton, give your milk a good shake each time you open it to make sure every last bit of that essential mineral makes it to your bones.
If you’re looking for an easy way to boost your calcium intake for the day, consider adding 1 cup of fortified orange juice to your diet.
A cup of this beverage with your breakfast gets you nearly a third of the way to your calcium goal, all before you even get to work!
To make sure you’re getting a product that does deliver this amount of calcium, look for brands that are calcium-fortified, or have added calcium - this is one of the rare circumstances where the fresh-squeezed stuff isn’t the best option.
The calcium in fortified orange juice is just as bioavailable as the stuff in dairy cow’s milk, so you won’t notice any difference when you’re making the switch.
You can just drink a glass of OJ with your meals, but for a fun citrus twist, try adding orange juice to your breakfast smoothie or using it to cook your oats instead of plant-based milk or water. Orange juice also makes a great acidic addition to homemade salad dressings and sauces.
266mg/1 cup cookeed
Leafy greens are truly the unsung heroes of the plant world, and this is never truer than it is for the humble collard green.
While its cousin kale usually gets all the glory when it comes to nutrition in the health food sphere, collards quietly provide iron, protein, and nearly a quarter of your recommended amount of calcium for the day.
In fact, a 1-cup serving of cooked collard greens provides over double the amount of calcium compared to a 1-cup serving of cooked kale (source). From a nutritional vantage point, collard greens should be a staple in every person’s diet, vegan or otherwise!
In order to maximize calcium content, you’ll need to cook your greens - a cup of cooked collards has 266mg of calcium, while raw collards provide about 50mg.
Much of this is due to volume - simply put, you can pack a lot more cooked leaves into one cup than you can raw.
Stir-frying collards is a quick and tasty way to prepare them - simply brown some chopped onion and garlic in a wok or large frying pan and add washed, chopped collard leaves. Stir until the leaves are tender and wilted, but still bright green. Use the greens as a side dish on their own, or stir into tofu scramble for a one-two punch of calcium.
253mg/ ½ cup
In addition to the calcium found naturally in soybeans, calcium is also a key ingredient in processing the beans into tofu, which makes it a fantastic source of the mineral as well as nutrients like protein.
There are many varieties of tofu, which differ mostly on their consistencies. On one side of the spectrum is silken tofu, which has a high water content and lends itself well to blending for smoothies, puddings, and pie filling.
On the other side of the spectrum is dense extra-firm tofu, which has a very small amount of water and is best for applications like baking, stir-fries, and scrambles.
Keeping cubes of perfectly cooked tofu in the fridge makes mealtime easy - just add to salads for a boost of protein and calcium, or toss with your favorite sauce and a few vegetables over brown rice.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and cut pressed tofu into cubes. Place cubes on a lightly oiled baking tray and bake for 30 minutes, or until cubes are golden brown. Consume immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
191mg/1 cup cooked
White beans are the velvet of the legume family. With soft, silky skins and creamy, buttery insides, white beans are a perfect addition to pasta and blend down beautifully to make luxurious dips - for an unexpected twist on hummus, use cooked white beans instead of chickpeas.
While canned white beans are relatively inexpensive and convenient, cooking dried white beans from scratch delivers calcium, protein, and iron for pennies. Simply soak dried white beans overnight.
Drain the soaked beans (they’ll have nearly doubled in size!), move to a stockpot and cover with two inches of water. After bringing the water to a boil, simmer the beans for 60-90 minute, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender.
140mg/10 dried figs
Dried figs are one of the most surprising sources of calcium, packing a healthy dose into a serving of these sweet morsels. In addition to just popping these little jewels into your mouth as a snack, dried figs make a tasty and unexpected topping for oatmeal, pureed into a luxurious filling for energy bars and pastries, or a fun replacement for raisins in your favorite cookie recipe.
When it comes to dried figs, you have a few options based on your needs and preferences. Turkish figs, which are squat and light-colored, are among the sweetest varieties, along with moist, black Mission figs. California figs are a good option for someone with a more mild sweet tooth, who wants to add just a touch of sweetness to snacks and baked goods.
A staple in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean kitchens, Tahini, is a creamy, satisfying, pleasantly bitter paste made from toasted ground sesame seeds.
Tahini is available in jars at most supermarkets, grocery stores, and ethnic food stores, but it can also be easily made at home - simply run toasted, hulled sesame seeds through your food processor until it becomes a smooth, creamy butter - you may need to scrape down the sides every so often.
Like most nut and seed butter, tahini is an incredibly versatile ingredient and lends itself well to both sweet and savory applications.
Tahini consumption can start at breakfast, stirred into oatmeal or blended into a coffee shake for sophisticated creaminess.
At lunch and dinner, tahini can be blended with herbs for a healthy salad dressing, or simply drizzled over roasted vegetables for added richness. Finally, use tahini for dessert in cookies for an adult version of peanut butter cookies.
Maybe you’re a picky eater and don’t like many of the foods on this list, or perhaps you’ll be on the road for a little while and want to make sure you’re getting enough calcium while traveling.
If all else fails, adding a calcium supplement to your diet can help you fill in any nutritional gaps that might lead to calcium deficiency.
Supplements vary in potency, so you’ll want to make sure to choose something that is not only vegan-friendly, but provides exactly the amount you need to avoid deficiency as well as toxicity, or taking in excess calcium.
For more information on choosing the right vegan calcium supplement be sure to read our indepth guide here.
How Do These Sources Stack Up Against Cow’s Milk?
We mentioned earlier that dairy-based milk from cows, sheep, and other mammals might not be the most effective source of calcium, which may be surprising considering the fact that it’s held up as the standard of calcium sources.
While the calcium in dairy milk does protect against bone problems such as osteoporosis and colon cancer, consumption of dairy milk has been shown to increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer.
Even worse, the high amount of vitamin A present in cow’s milk can counteract the protecting benefits of calcium, actually weakening bones and working against any protective properties that the calcium in milk might offer.
Add a hefty dose of saturated fat from cow’s milk, and it seems like a pretty big tradeoff, especially when you consider the amount of plants that serve as good sources of calcium and contain none of these troubling side effects.
It goes to show that you should always take any health claims made by the industry that produces a product with a hefty grain of salt - ultimately, if you’re getting your calcium from beans, leaves, and fruits, you’re doing the opposite of what the dairy industry wants: spending fewer dollars on dairy-based foods.
How Much Calcium Do I Need?
Most adults age 19-70 need about 1,000mg per day to keep bones strong and promote healthy enzymatic activity throughout the body.
Because you have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis and bone density problems if you’re female, especially when going through menopause, women over the age of 51 should consume closer to 1,200mg per day to ensure they’re protecting their bones throughout the aging process.
You probably know the signs of calcium deficiency, which are usually related to weakness and curving of bones, such as bowed legs in children, tooth decay, and osteoporosis. If you’re experiencing any of these side effects, talk to your doctor about upping your calcium intake - they may suggest or prescribe a calcium supplement.
It may be tempting to take out nutritional insurance and simply consume much more calcium than needed to make up for any potential dietary deficiencies.
However, in the case of calcium, consuming in excess can be dangerous. Bone spurs, fatigue, depression, kidney stones, and gallstones are all symptoms of calcium toxicity. In the case of this nutrient, more is not better, so take care to consume only the amount of calcium you need.
Strong Vegan Bones with Plant-Based Calcium
Contrary to popular belief, there is a whole world of plant-based foods out there that provide more, if not better, calcium than cow’s milk.
By eating these legumes, leaves, dried fruits, and beverages as part of a healthy, varied diet, you can make sure that your bones will be strong and healthy enough for activity and support without ever having to turn to cruel dairy products to meet your daily goals.
On the plus side, you can still wear an iconic milk mustache - this one will just be soy-based, and you won’t need any to deal with any of the nasty side effects to get it.