You’ve probably been told since childhood — and perhaps even told your own children — that we need calcium to help our bones stay healthy and strong. While true, this science is incomplete. Calcium assists in several other critical functions, including blood circulation, enzyme and hormone function, and nerve and muscle support.
If we’re not getting enough calcium in our diets, our bodies will “borrow” it from our bones, causing them to become weak and potentially frail. For female athletes, it’s particularly important that we have enough calcium because an active lifestyle requires strong, resilient bones. Moreover, women in particular, are already at an increased risk for osteoporosis and bone thinning.
For female athletes following plant-based diets, it’s important that we address a potentially harmful — or at the very least, confusing — calcium myth that has become quite pervasive in our society. Namely, the idea that we need to eat cow’s milk or dairy products such as yogurt in order to incorporate calcium into our diets.
Entire marketing campaigns have been devoted to advertising the benefits of milk and it’s role in building strong bones. While the claims about the calcium in milk are indeed true, the idea that we need to drink milk to get that calcium is a myth that needs debunking.
This myth is potentially harmful because it supports the idea that milk is healthy and allows for the suggestion that a plant-based diet is lacking in calcium. Neither is true. Milk is hard on digestion and can contain harmful hormones and pesticides. What’s more, the calcium in milk is low in magnesium, making it far less effective.
Cows get their calcium — and magnesium — directly from a plant-based diet, and humans can do the same. Vegetables like broccoli, okra, rhubarb, and celery are all great sources of this essential mineral. One cup of cooked spinach contains around the same amount of calcium as six ounces of milk. Nuts like almonds and fruits like oranges are a few other unexpected places to find calcium.
The good news is that your plant-based diet is providing you with more calcium than you may have been led to believe. If you’re eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, these foods are serving as natural sources calcium so your body won’t need to leech it from your bones.
But is it enough? We’ve already discussed just how vital calcium is to the female athlete. Because women are at an increased risk for osteoporosis, doctors recommend they get around 1,200 milligrams of calcium, whereas men only need around 1,000 milligrams. Despite the medical community’s efforts to educate women on their calcium needs, Spine Health reports that four in five women above age 20 don’t get enough.
Because you follow a plant-based diet that provides you with natural sources of quality calcium, you may actually be ahead of the average American, whose diet is typically lacking in plant-based calcium that contains necessary magnesium. Nevertheless, it can still be helpful to take supplements to ensure that your calcium needs are fully met. Talk with your doctor to determine the supplement dosage that’s right for you.