When I was in university studying nutrition, it was ingrained in us that it was essential to eat dairy to get enough calcium. We would have representatives from the dairy industry come and talk to our classes of 300+ students about the importance of dairy, and we even visited local dairy farms for Agricultural Science class.
"What about plant based sources like broccoli and tahini?" I would ask, the professor would respond with "well you'd have to eat 10 cups of broccoli a day".
This was over 10 years ago, so I am hoping there is more dialogue in university nutrition programs about meeting calcium needs from plant foods now, especially since approximately 65% of the population is actually lactose intolerant (5, 6). Also, higher milk consumption does not seem to lower the risk of bone fractures (7), but it does seem to be associated with higher rates of cancer (8, 9, 10, 11).
So, how can we meet our calcium needs on a plant based diet? Do we have to eat cups of broccoli all day? Is it something vegans even need to worry about?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of calcium for adults 19-50 years old is 1000mg per day (2). For children 9-18 years old it is 1300mg, and for adults over 50 years old is it 1200mg (2)
When you start looking at the calcium content of your favourite plant foods, it may first seem difficult to reach 1000mg each day.
Incorporating fortified plant milks is a great way to increase your calcium intake, as one cup provides about 300-400mg.
Calcium-set tofu is another great source of calcium. It provides about 250mg per 1/2 cup serving, but do check the labels as the calcium amount does vary.
When it comes to dark leafy greens, the amount of calcium we are able to absorb depends on the amount of oxalates in the greens.
For spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard, only about 5-10% of the calcium in is absorbed (1).
With lower oxalate greens like kale, broccoli, Chinese greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens, the absorption of calcium is between 50-65% (1). Collards can be considered a good source as well, even though they are slightly higher in oxalates.
One cup of cooked, lower oxalate greens provides:
Chinese Cabbage (Boy Choy/Pak Choi)........158mg
If you're eating any of these raw, just double the serving size to 2 cups since cooking reduces the amount of oxalates.
The absorption rates for calcium carbonate fortified plant based milks and tofu are similar to that of dairy, at about 30% (3, 4). These absorption rates were taken into account when the RDA was determined.
If you are including fortified plant milks, calcium-set tofu, and cooked low oxalate greens on a daily basis it shouldn't be too difficult to reach 1000mg of calcium per day as small amounts will be coming from the other foods you eat as well, like beans and seeds.
*Looking back at what the professor said about having to eat multiple cups of broccoli to reach our calcium needs. Yes, if your only source of calcium is broccoli, you’d need almost 14 cups. But we do not have to meet our specific nutrient needs from a single food, nor should we, as diet diversity is the best way to support our gut microbiome and overall health.
The key to getting enough calcium from a plant based diet is to include a variety of sources. Plus, diets high in fruits and vegetables have positive effects on bone density (12, 13).
If you are not sure about your diet, please feel free to get in touch with me for a free 15 minute call, order a custom meal plan, or a full in-depth consultation about your specific plant based nutrition needs.
1. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet.
2. Vitamin D and Calcium: Updated Dietary Reference Intakes.
3. Bioavailability of Calcium from Tofu Compared with Milk in Premenopausal Women.
4. Calcium bioavailability of calcium carbonate fortified soymilk is equivalent to cow's milk in young women.
5. Lactose Intolerance (American Family Physician).
6. Lactose Intolerance (US National Library of Medicine).
7. Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies.
8. Dairy, soy, and risk of breast cancer: those confounded milks.
9. Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk in the Physicians' Health Study.
10. Association between Neu5Gc carbohydrate and serum antibodies against it provides the molecular link to cancer: French NutriNet-Santé study.
11. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers.
12. Fruit and vegetable intakes and bone mineral status: a cross sectional study in 5 age and sex cohorts.
13. Potassium, Magnesium, and fruit and vegetable intakes are associated with greater bone mineral density in elderly men and women.
First, I'd just like to say that I don't think there are that many people leaving veganism, it's just that there have been some vegan influencers leave and therefore everyone hears about it. We don't get to hear as much about all of the success stories, or about how many thriving, long-term healthy vegans there are.
That being said, I still always feel disheartened when I hear about someone leaving veganism. I realize that everyone is on their own journey but for someone to make that step to become vegan - to love it, become passionate about it, feel great, etc - and then go back to being non-vegan because they felt it didn't work for them is unfortunate.
If someone just doesn't want to be vegan anymore they should just state that as their reason, but instead they usually say that it is due to some issue with the vegan diet.
Yes, we are all individuals, but there is no reason someone can't be healthy on a vegan diet. There may be individual variations in types of foods eaten, or ratios of macronutrients, but no one should have to incorporate animal products for any reason.*
What is really going on when people leave veganism?
But, what we can do is:
I do not want to shame anyone that has left a vegan diet, especially if they were dealing with health issues and their practitioner told them that eating animal products was the only way for them to feel better. I did however want to shed light on the trend of certain ex-vegans blaming the vegan diet for their issues when really it seemed like they just didn't want to be vegan anymore. Their stories muddy the water and create doubt in regards to the safety and ability to be a healthy vegan, when really they could have remained vegan and still addressed their health concerns.
*people living in remote Northern regions of Canada may not have access to enough fruits and vegetables all year round
If you or someone you know may need some assistance with your vegan diet please feel free to reach out via email or book a complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call.
If you have found yourself snacking more these past few months you are definitely not alone.
And I am not here to tell you to stop, or that it's a bad thing to do. My approach to nutrition is not about restriction, deprivation, or stressing about how much you are eating.
However, I do want to talk about the migrating motor complex (MMC) and its role in maintaining healthy gut function.
What is MMC? Migrating Motor Complex is a sequence of muscle contractions throughout the digestive system that acts as a 'cleaning wave' to help keep contents moving along. (1,3)
These cleaning waves occur after ~ 90 mins of fasting. The majority of the cleaning waves happen at night while we are asleep, and for many people this will be sufficient enough to help maintain a healthy, balanced environment in the digestive tract. For others, it may be beneficial to space out food intake to allow for a couple cleaning waves to occur between meals throughout the day as well.
If you are someone that experiences bloating or other digestive issues, it may be worth trying out a few different options when it comes to supporting the MMC.
Whether or not snacking in between meals is a new habit or something you have always done, try spacing out your snacks/meals by about 4 hours, and only having water in between.
To help maintain this eating schedule, it is important to eat enough at each meal, and for the meals to include plant based proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.
This type of eating schedule won't be suitable for everyone, and it may be difficult for athletes to get the calories they need by just eating 3 meals a day.
If you try it and feel it doesn't work for you, you could try instead to increase the length of time you are not eating between dinner and breakfast the next day in order to help increase the number of cleaning waves that happen at night (aim for a 12-13 hour window). Then, throughout the day, you may be able to have more frequent meals (i.e. every 2.5-3.5 hours) since you'll likely be increasing the cleaning waves that happen between dinner and breakfast the next day.
Again, everyone is different so it will be important to figure out what works for you.
Obviously, this alone may not solve all of your digestive issues, but it is a piece of the puzzle that's worth considering when dealing with bloating, indigestion, heartburn, and other symptoms associated with SIBO or IBS.
There are multiple underlying factors that can contribute to decreased activity of the MMC:
MMC & the Vagus Nerve:
The health of your vagus nerve can sometimes be the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to examining the root cause of gut imbalances. Work with your doctor to determine whether or not your vagus nerve or MMC may be involved with your digestive symptoms.
The vagus nerve is a 2-way highway of communication between the gut and the brain. (7) And they influence each other in both directions. Low vagal tone can lead to gut disfunction and dysbiosis, and dysbiosis can lead to low vagal tone. (10)
There are many factors when it comes to the involvement of the vagus nerve with digestive health. Low vagal tone may be involved with:
There are a number of simple ways to support the health of the vagus nerve (12):
MMC & IBS/SIBO:
There are often gut motility issues and MMC irregularities involved with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). (9)
"The MMC has been considered an “intestinal housekeeper” that prevents SIBO" (9)
Your doctor may include short-term use of prokinetics after SIBO treatment to help prevent relapse (prokinetics stimulate gut motility and MMC - however it is still important to try to figure out the underlying reason(s) for the gut motility/MMC issues as prokinetics are not always a suitable long-term solution)
It is important to treat SIBO and determine the underlying causes of SIBO (2,9), IBS and other digestive issues since SIBO and other gut imbalances eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies and other chronic health issues.
There are many possible underlying causes when it comes to digestive issues, and the MMC and health of the vagus nerve is only one area of possibility. However, it is one that is important to talk to your doctor about, especially when many other factors have already been ruled out as a cause, or have been addressed in your treatment protocol.
"But where do you get your protein?"
I know, I know...if you've been vegan for any amount of time you may be tired of hearing this question, I am definitely with you, I've been answering it since 1993!
However, I wanted to talk about protein today because I see such a wide range being recommended in the vegan community. I see recommendations for anywhere from 10-30% of calories from protein, or to put it in terms of ideal body weight, anywhere from 0.8-2.2g of protein per kg of body weight.
With such a wide range being recommended, how do you know how much to aim for?
The general consensus among vegan health professionals is that if you are eating enough calories, you will easily be getting more than enough protein. However, I did want to provide a few tips to help you determine where on the protein intake range you should aim for:
Now, to go back to that statement about not having to worry about your protein if you are eating enough calories, which I do agree with, but there are some things to keep in mind:
Some people may suggest that you'll need to eat more than the recommended amount if you are getting your protein from plants because plant protein is 'incomplete' or not as bioavailable. This is not the case, and you are actually better off getting your protein from plants:
"Is Soy Bad?"
This is still one of the most common questions I hear from my clients. Both men and women have concerns about the phytoestrogens in soy so I wanted to share some of the science and research on the topic, and hopefully help ease some of those concerns.
First it is important to point out –– there is no mammalian estrogen in soy.
The plant-estrogens (phytoestrogens) in soy do not act the same way as mammalian estrogen. This is due to the differences in structure, and the type of estrogen receptors that they prefer to interact with.
There are two types of estrogen receptors in the body, ERalpha and ERbeta. Phytoestrogens from soy prefer to bind to ERbeta receptors which actually helps reduce the effects of stronger estrogens in the body, including the estrogen-mimicking chemicals (also known as xenoestrogens) found in plastics, pesticides, personal care products, cleaning products, and cologne to name a few.
One of the ways that phytoestrogens have this protective effect is by physically blocking the stronger estrogens from binding to the receptors.
Mammalian estrogen and xenoestrogens always have a strong estrogenic effect. In contrast, phytoestrogens can have an weak estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, or neutral effect. Phytoestrogens are therefore classified as SERMS (selective estrogen receptor modulators).
Phytoestrogens also decrease the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. We wouldn't see this effect if phytoestrogens acted like mammalian estrogen. When the ERalpha receptors in the breast tissue are activated by regular estrogen it stimulates cell proliferation (i.e. increasing breast cancer risk). When ERbeta receptors in the breast tissue are activated by phytoestrogen it blocks the proliferative effects. This is another mechanism for how phytoestrogens have a protective effect.
It is also interesting to note that Hops, used to make beer, has a different type of phytoestrogen that prefers to bind to the ERalpha receptors. Please take note that there have been hormonal imbalances from a high intake of hops.
This brings us to the hormonal effects of animal products. There is actual estrogen in breast milk from mammals. Dairy is a very hormonal fluid since it is designed to support rapid growth in baby animals. There are also traces of real estrogen in all meat since it is a hormone produced by the animal.
"All foods of animal origin contain estradiol, which is at least 10,000x more potent than the already harmful xenoestrogens found in man-made chemicals." - Nutritionfacts.org
In addition to the naturally present hormones in animal products, the environmental estrogens end up accumulating in animal products because they are fat-soluable. So not only are you getting mammalian estrogen, you also get all those estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Check out this research linking fish intake to lower testosterone levels.
There have been two case studies (1, 2) linking soy intake with negative hormonal outcomes in men but these men were consuming 12+ servings a day. I think consuming anything in that amount would lead to some sort of imbalance. To compare, I would like to see what the effects would have been if these men were drinking that much cows milk.
There are no issues with men consuming an average amount of soy (3-5 servings a week). Generally, I recommend no more than 1-2 servings a day, not because of hormonal issues but to help increase the variety of other plant foods in the diet. It used be easy for vegans to overly rely on soy products (before we had all of the different types of vegan milks, cheeses, and meats we do now) but doing so will cut down on the variety of other foods in the diet.
So, who should avoid soy? Only those with a true food allergy to soy. If you have a sensitivity or intolerance, you could try reintroducing soy in very small amounts - please work with your health care provider if you want to reintroduce soy foods.
And keep in mind that sprouted and fermented versions like sprouted tofu, tempeh, and miso may be easier for some people to digest.
If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:
Collagen has become quite the buzz word in the last few years. It is one of the most abundant proteins in the body, making up 30-80% of our bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, and blood vessels.
However, before you go out and buy one of the many collagen supplements on the market it is important to understand how the body actually absorbs and builds its own collagen.
Collagen is a protein, and like all proteins it is comprised of a string of amino acids. Collagen is the term we use when referring to raw collagen proteins, while gelatin refers to heated collagen, and hydrolyzed collagen refers to collagen that has been heated and broken down into shorter amino acid chains.
Dietary collagen sources include bone broth, gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen powder made from the skin, ligaments, and tendons of animals - all forms of collagen comes from animals. We are often led to believe that the only way to support collagen production in the body is to eat collagen. As you will see below, this is simply not the case.
Like all proteins, when we eat collagen it is digested into its individual amino acids before it can be absorbed by the body. Consuming collagen provides the body with amino acids, the most abundant being glycine, proline, alanine, arginine, and glutamic acid.
When we eat collagen, we don't absorb collagen,
we absorb the amino acids that make up collagen.
There is nothing special or unique about the amino acids provided by collagen. These amino acids are also abundant in a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
When these amino acids are supplied by the diet, the body can then make its own collagen, as long as there are also enough antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in the diet.
For example, one of the first steps in collagen production is the hydroxylation of the amino acids lysine and proline. The enzymes required for this step are dependent on ample vitamin C levels, therefore, without enough dietary vitamin C the body will have a difficult time making collagen regardless of the amount of amino acid building blocks that are consumed.
We can support healthy collagen production by eating enough of the key amino acids, vitamin C, antioxidants, and silica.
Do these amino acids have to come from collagen
supplements or other animal-based products?
No, they absolutely do not, and to give you a few examples I have listed some of the highest sources of the key amino acids below. I have also included some sources of the other nutrients required for collagen production.
As long as you are eating a variety of plant foods there will be no issues consuming enough of these amino acids, or enough protein in general. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The body needs a full range of amino acids to be able to build all the different types of proteins in the body (hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, as well as structural proteins like muscle, hair, nails, and of course collagen).
Every food has an amino acid profile that shows the ratios of amino acids found in that particular food. By eating a mix of foods, all with different amino acid ratios, we can easily get the full range of these building blocks.
Foods that Support Collagen Production:
Other collagen-building co-factors: manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin E, sulfur, essential fatty acids, vitamin A, selenium - all available from a wide variety of plant foods.
We Do Not Need to Eat Collagen to Make Collagen:
Shawna Barker BSc., R.H.N. is a nutritionist, vegan chef, college instructor, and an expert in plant based nutrition. She graduated with honours from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelors of Science degree in Food, Nutrition and Health, as well as the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition with a Diploma in Holistic Nutrition.