Choose Vegetable Calcium Over Animal Calcium

A lot of people believe a vegetable-based diet, which excludes milk and cheese, doesn't provide enough calcium. According to Eat to Live fruits and vegetables contain ample amounts of calcium and this veggie-calcium is actually retained more efficiently in our bodies. Dr. Fuhrman explains:

Green vegetables, beans, tofu, sesame seeds, and even oranges contain lots of usable calcium, without problems associated with diary. Keep in mind that you retain the calcium better and just do not need as much when you don't consume a diet heavy in animal products and sodium, sugar, and caffeine.

Dr. Fuhrman points out that despite its reputation, milk's calcium-absorption rate is lower than what you might think:

Many green vegetables have calcium-absorption rates of over 50 percent, compared with about 32 percent for milk.1 Additionally since animal protein induces calcium excretion in the urine, the calcium retention from vegetables is higher. All green vegetables are high in calcium.

Given the concentrated calcium dose in green vegetables and the health risks associated with of diary products, veggies are a great tool for protecting yourself against bone debilitating diseases like osteoporosis. The Chicago Tribune agrees…kind of.

In an article entitled Shoring Up Your Bones reporter JoAnn Milivojevic re-hashes a lot of the same recommendations for keeping bones strong and dense that you heard as a kid:

An easy way to combine calcium and vitamin D, according to Blatner, is to have an 8-ounce serving of milk and/or fortified soymilk three times a day. She recommends pouring the fortified beverage of your choice on cereal in the morning, blending it with frozen fruit for a smoothie, drinking a glass with lunch or having a glass of hot chocolate for dessert. Cosman cautioned that the milk be low-fat or non-fat: "There's no way taking in all that saturated fat is good for you," she said.

The daily recommended value for vitamin D is 400 international units (IU). You may need more or less depending on your age or food habits. For example, the NOF suggests that postmenopausal women need more because a decline in estrogen means a decline in calcium absorption. Vegans (vegetarians who don't eat eggs or dairy) may also need to take extra steps to ensure they're getting enough calcium through the plant-based foods they eat.

Good sources of calcium include fortified breakfast cereals, milk, yogurt, cheese, tofu and greens such as collards and kale. To get the most nutritional bang for your bite, create such tasty combinations as broccoli and cheese. A half cup of steamed broccoli with an ounce of cheese gets you 20 percent of your daily recommended value of both calcium and vitamin D.

It's encouraging to see mass-media even suggesting vegetables as a sufficient source of calcium, but Milivojevic, like some many others, is clearly reluctant to wipe away her milk mustache permanently. For those loyal to bovine juice Dr. Fuhrman recommends restricting milk consumption to only fat-free skim and taking supplements as needed.

From his book Eat to Live Dr. Fuhrman provides additional insight on role of animal calcium in the standard American diet (SAD):

The American "chicken and pasta" diet style is significantly low in calcium, so adding dairy as a calcium source to this mineral-poor diet makes superficial sense—it is certainly better than no calcium in the diet. However, much more than just calcium is missing. The only reasons cow's milk is considered such an important source of calcium, is that the American diet is centered on animal foods, refined grains, and sugar, all of which are devoid of calcium. Any healthy diet containing a reasonable amount of unrefined plant foods will have sufficient calcium without milk. Fruits and vegetables strengthen bones. Researchers have found that those who eat the most fruits and vegetables have denser bones.2 These researchers concluded that not only are fruits and vegetables rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients essential for bone health, but, because they are alkaline, not acid-producing, they don induce urinary calcium loss. Green vegetables in particular have a powerful effect on reducing hip fractures, for they are rich not only in calcium but in other nutrients, such as vitamin K, which is crucial for bone health.3

1. Weaver, C.M., and K.L. Plawecki. 1994. Dietary calcium: adequacy of a vegetarian diet. Am. J. Nutr. 59 (supp.): 1238-41S.

2. Tucker, K.L., M. T. Hannan, H. Chen, et al. 1999. Potassium, magnesium, and fruit and vegetable intakes are associated with greater mineral density in elderly men and women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 69 (4): 727-36; News, S. A., S.P. Robins, M.K. Campbell, et al. 2000. Dietary influences on bone mass and bone metabolism: further evidence of a positive link between fruit and vegetable consumption and bone health? Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 71 (1): 142-51.

3. Feskanich, D., P. Weber, W.C. Willett, et al. 1999. Vitamin K intake and hip fractures in women: a prospective study. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 69 (1): 74-79.

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Helena - May 4, 2006 6:19 PM

I am interested in Dr Fuhrman's comments on this entry from Dr Mirkin: "Studies done many years ago suggested that eating a lot of protein increases calcium loss in the urine and therefore it was thought that eating protein weakens bones by taking calcium out of them. However, recent studies show that eating protein increases calcium absorption so the extra calcium in the urine comes from increased absorption, not from being take out of bones."

anet - May 7, 2006 8:29 AM

I read the Tribune article, its so thinly sourced it would be funny if it wasn't such misinformation. The sad fact is that most of our population depends on newspaper's reporting for "health" information. And frequently the authors of this tripe reference data from studies by industry-funded groups like the Dairy Council.

They invariably include the "warning" about being vegan...which reminds me of an article I read recently about raw foodists and osteoporis risk...
here it is
Maybe bone density as the only parameter being considered w/ us fat americans on the SAD diet, is an overly simplistic way to look at this whole picture...

Moe Burton - May 9, 2006 10:29 AM

Another consideration with calcium from vegetable sources is the content of oxalic acid, which reacts with calcium to form insoluble oxalates. An article in the May 2006 Acres U.S.A. (p.51) shows this. Under Conclusions, it says that "The members of the mustard family (turnip greens, kale, mustard greens)[and I would include bok choy and collard greens] had a much higher percentage of calcium than those of the goosefoot family (spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, New Zealand spinach). The differences in calcium contributions to the human diet by the two plant families were magnified by the high oxalate content in the goosefoot greens. When this oxalate was expressed on a chemically equivalent basis, it was present in sufficient quantities to neutralize and thereby make insoluble and indigestible all the calcium and magnesium in these greens and to leave excess oxalate for dietary removal of calcium derived from other foods consumed with them." So don't let a goosefoot kick out your calcium.

staci - February 27, 2007 8:57 AM

hey, i love your article. i noticed that you use numbers at the end of some sentences so i was wondering if you can direct me to your references. i want to get to the bottom of this with actual studies so i can use it in my nutrtion classes when they are trying to teach us to get people to drink milk. thank you for your help.

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