Ask the Nutritionist
Q: If I completely eliminate milk and dairy from my diet, would I get enough calcium from a varied plant-based vegan diet?
Alison Hennig, New London, New Hampshire
A: Dairy, including milk and eggs, are often primary protein sources in a vegetarian diet, but are eliminated in a vegan diet. As you point out, the consequences of eliminating those food groups go beyond just protein to include vitamins and minerals such as calcium. Calcium is vital for bone health and also plays a role in nerve transmission and muscle function.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for calcium for men and women ages 19-50 years is 1,000 mg/day. Nondairy sources of calcium include Chinese cabbage, kale and broccoli. Compared to dairy sources, the amount of calcium in vegetables is less; 1 cup of raw broccoli delivers 1/3 the calcium of 1 cup of non-fat milk (90 mg vs 300 mg).
However, if you get creative with adding these vegetables into your diet, you can increase the amount of calcium you consume within a vegan diet. Consider adding kale to a breakfast smoothie or trade a side salad for raw broccoli spears. You can also find calcium fortified foods such as orange juice, breakfast cereal, almond milk and tofu (be sure to check the labels to ensure it is enriched with calcium).
Here are some recipes from our library that contain calcium-rich fruits and vegetables:
Spicy Tofu with Cashews
Green Pizza (make with a soy cheese or skip the mozzarella)
Mango-Banana Smoothie (consider adding some raw kale)
Another option to consider when adopting a diet such as veganism is supplementation. Though we generally recommend getting the majority of your vitamins and minerals from your diet, it can sometimes be difficult. Calcium supplements are best absorbed in dosages of 500-600 mg that includes Vitamin D. Consider what is in your multi-vitamin and what is in your food before adding an additional supplement, and always speak with your doctor or dietitian if you have any questions.
Also see Incorporating Protein into a Vegetarian Diet