Vegans May Need to Bone Up on Calcium

A properly planned vegetarian diet can meet all your nutritional requirements. Research indicates it may also reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and other chronic diseases. However, embarking on a vegetarian lifestyle without adequate preparation may create nutritional problems.

One of the nutrients most likely to be deficient in the diet of vegans (strict vegetarians who consume only plant-based foods) is calcium. By increasing your calcium intake, you can decrease your risk of age related declines in bone mass. A calcium-rich diet has also been linked with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for colon cancer.

Are You Getting Enough Calcium?
For most adults, the recommended amount of calcium is 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams a day. And teens need 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams daily, based on a 1994 National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on Calcium. Most Americans fall short of these goals, with women consuming only an average of 700 milligrams daily and men consuming 900 milligrams. Young teen-age girls may consume even less than this.

Since peak bone-mass formation occurs during adolescence, cutting back on calcium could spell problems with bone health in later years. Since vegans do not consume foods from the milk group, the source of about 75 percent of the calcium consumed in the United States, finding alternative calcium sources is a wise health choice.

But calcium isn’t the only ingredient for good bone health. Weight-bearing activities, such as jogging, brisk walking and weight training, also help build stronger bones and decrease the effects of age on bone loss. Three to five weekly exercise sessions lasting 20 to 60 minutes each, plus two weight-training sessions per week will help. Vitamin D, found in sunlight and fortified foods such as soymilk and some whole grain cereals, promotes calcium absorption as well.

Meeting Your Daily Calcium Requirement
If you are vegan, these simple steps may help you meet your calcium needs:
• Every day, consume two or three servings of calcium-fortified soymilk or tofu. Each serving has close to the amount of calcium in an 8-ounce glass of milk.

• Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, soybeans, soynuts, dry beans, lentils and dried fruits daily.

• Make sure your diet includes a wide variety of foods from all the vegetarian food groups: protein/meat substitute; milk substitutes such as fortified soymilk, soy cheese or soy yogurt; fruits; vegetables; and whole grain breads, cereals and starches.

If you cannot meet these goals, consider a calcium supplement. Caramel- or chocolate-type calcium “chews,” fruit-flavored calcium chewables, and other calcium supplements are widely available.

Take no more than 500 milligrams of calcium carbonate or calcium citrate with meals, up to twice a day. A daily calcium intake greater than 2,000 milligrams is not recommended. To avoid the slim risk of lead exposure, choose name-brand supplements when possible and avoid oyster-shell calcium varieties.

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