Understanding Calcium & Iron for Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians: Part I

Kara Bauer Health Guide
  • One of the most common questions from people debating whether to follow a primarily vegetarian or vegan diet is “where will I get my iron and/or calcium?” Whether you choose a plant-based diet or not, understanding how to best absorb these nutrients is beneficial for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Often times we find that those who include meat and dairy products in their diet are just as prone to conditions such as osteoporosis, anemia and low iron counts, as those who limit or restrict their consumption of animal products.


    To start, I’d like to talk about calcium which is extremely important for the bones and teeth as many know, as well as muscle, nerve, enzyme and heart -function. It can even increase life span.[1] However, new information shows us that calcium supplementation actually does very little in building strong bones and teeth and may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks by 30%, making calcium consumption from good quality whole food sources extremely important.[2][3] 

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    What’s important to understand in relation to building strong bones and teeth is that our bodies are holistic in nature. This means that calcium alone won’t successfully do the job and that a combination of nutrients is actually required to prevent deterioration or osteoporosis. This point is illustrated by the fact that the highest calcium consuming countries actually have the highest rates of osteoporosis. Vitamin K, for example, is essential to prevent calcification in our arteries and mineralization of our bones.[4] Vitamin D, which works tightly with Vitamin K, is important for calcium absorption, but without adequate intake of Vitamin K, it can actually work against you if you are absorbing calcium well and build-up occurs. According to David Wolfe’s research, nutritionist and author of several books including Sunfood Diet Success System, silica and magnesium are also key to increasing bone density.[5]


    So where can you get some of these key nutrients related to proper calcium intake. Many find it interesting that milk, which is marketed as being a great source of calcium, really has equal or less calcium then other plant-based sources. For example, almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, pistachios, amaranth, quinoa, sunflower seeds, garbanzo beans, black beans, parsley, kale and all sea vegetables (some containing 10-13x the calcium found in milk) all contain more calcium then milk.[6]This doesn’t mean that dairy products aren’t a good source of calcium. They are. However, from a health perspective many would agree that raw (unpasteurized) organic sources are best, if available, as they are the most nutrient rich.


    In general, green leafy vegetables and fermented foods are great for Vitamin K, however more than likely you will require a K2 supplement as well. Vitamin D, which ideally is absorbed from the sun, should also be consumed. If you aren’t able to get enough sun, animal products (for non-vegetarians) or a D3 supplement if you are vegan, vegetarian or are just looking to get your levels optimized, can be added to the diet for optimal health.[7]


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    Silica can be found in cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, whole grains, oats, alfalfa and many herbs (horsetail and nettle for example). And magnesium is abundant in raw cacao as well as green leafy vegetables, nuts, avocados, etc.[5] 


    Overall,  if one understands the holistic approach to adequate calcium absorption as well as the many factors involved in healthy bones and teeth, it can be easy to be successful for both vegans/vegetarians as well as those who consume organic animal products on a regular basis.


    Next week, I will speak about iron absorption, its relationship to calcium, and plant-based sources available for vegans and vegetarians.


     [1] Mercola, J. (2010, April 1). Caution: low levels of this key mineral could shring your lifespan. Retrieved from  http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/04/01/calcium-may-help-you-live-longer.aspx


    [2] bmj.com. "Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis." MJ Bolland, et al. BMJ, July 29:341:c3691



    [3] Mercola, J. (2011, August 15). This popular supplement can spike your heart attack risk by 30%. Retrieved from   http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/08/15/is-your-calcium-supplement-a-heart-attack-or-stroke-waiting-to-happen.aspx


    [4] pubmed.org. "Effects of vitamin K on calcium and bone metabolism." A Zittermann. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, November 4, 2001:(6):483-7 



    [5] Trejo, B. (2009, December 5). Use tips from David Wolfe to increase bone density. Retrieved from  http://www.naturalnews.com/027660_David_Wolfe_bone_density.html


    [6] Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with whole foods: Asian traditions and modern nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books


    [7] Mercola, J. (2011, March 26). The Missing Nutrient to Blame for Heart Attacks and Osteoporosis (Nope - NOT Calcium or Vitamin D). Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/03/26/the-delicate-dance-between-vitamins-d-and-k.aspx

Published On: August 10, 2012