Today I decided to write about calcium. Usually my blogs stem from questions I see on the Vegan forums, but this is one that I decided to research for myself, as I’m sure I’ve not been getting enough calcium since I turned vegan.
For those of you who don’t know much about calcium, I’ll tell you a little bit more about why it’s so important. Most people know that it’s used to make bone, and in the same vein, it’s also involved in keeping teeth healthy. But did you know it’s also essential for healthy blood clotting, normal muscle and nerve activity, and even for helping our chromosomes move when our cells need to divide?
So now we know what calcium does, how much of it do we need? The recommended daily intake is around 800mg, however women who are pregnant or breast feeding need 50% more than that, as do teenagers. But, due to the way calcium is absorbed in our bodies, we only actually absorb 40% of the dose we take. It’s also really difficult to measure your calcium levels, as it moves in and out of bones, helping to maintain the level in your blood. So you may not be getting enough calcium, but your blood test may be completely normal.
There are often no symptoms of calcium deficiency, but when it becomes severely low, it can cause cramping and tingling in the hands and feet, fits and psychiatric problems. These serious symptoms are usually seen when there are other diseases that cause your calcium level to drop rather than because of a dietary deficiency. Suspicion of low calcium intake is often triggered by x-rays where the bones look a little thinner than they should be. So rather than testing for it, it is far more important to maintain a healthy intake.
Calcium supplements are often taken with vitamin D, and this is because the two of them work together to keep our bones healthy. Vitamin D enhances the absorption of calcium from the gut and increases the amount that is laid down in bone. Vitamin D levels can be easily checked on a blood test, and symptoms of a deficiency tend to be quite non-specific, but some people complain of tiredness, aches and pains.
We’re all used to seeing adverts for dairy as a good source of calcium, but there are plenty of places where vegans can top up too. For example, enriched soy milk contains the same amount of calcium as dairy milk, 240mg per 200ml. Tofu is also a great source of calcium when it is calcium-set, which many in the UK are, containing up to 500mg of calcium per 100g. To be sure it is calcium-set, look for calcium sulphate in the ingredient list. Other foods with high calcium content are white beans, spinach, figs, brazil nuts, apricots and chick peas. This leaflet contains more information on foods with a high calcium content (I apologise that this leaflet also discusses fish as a non-dairy source of calcium).
I must also mention some non-dietary things you should also consider to keep your bones healthy. Weight bearing exercises are fantastic for bone health, and you should be mindful to keep your alcohol and caffeine intake down, and avoid smoking.
If after reading this you are still worried that you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet, you could consider buying a supplement. There are lots of supplements on the market which are suitable for vegans – I bought mine from Ocado, but Holland and Barrett also supply more than one. Non-vegan supplements tend to source vitamin D from lanolin (sheep’s wool fat) and many of the capsules and tablets contain the usual culprits of gelatine and lactose.
On a final note, if your doctor has diagnosed you with thinning bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis),and is prescribing a vitamin D and calcium preparation, I am happy to tell you that there are two tablets which do not contain animal products. These are Calcichew D3 and Calcichew D3 forte, and your GP may be able to prescribe them for you if appropriate.
Thanks for reading,
The Vegan Doctor.