THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CALCIUM & THE DAIRY FREE DIET
Why do you need it?
Calcium. We know it is vital for strong bones and teeth, but that is just one of the many roles it plays in the body- and not just in supporting acts either. Elsewhere this mineral works in muscle contraction (the heart? muy importante!), hormone release (insulin is a big one), nerve impulses (any type of movement- walking, talking, breathing), blood clotting (no bleeding out here) and the constriction and relaxation of blood vessels (blood flow). Can we agree that if calcium is low you will run into some serious problems?
The good news is the body has a huge storage locker of calcium that it can pull from if you don’t get enough from your diet. The bad news is this storage locker is your very bones and teeth and osteoporosis can result if this reservoir is taken advantage of too frequently. Though most people get enough through diet, some of you will have to pay more attention to getting your calcium in than others. You are in this category if you…
- have dairy allergies,
- have celiac disease,
- have Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative colitis,
- are a teenager,
- are a women who is also an athlete OR breastfeeding OR post-menopausal, or
- are vegan (ovo-lacto-vegetarians are in the clear- you guys get more than most others do!)
If you fall into any of these groups, keep reading – you are at risk of a calcium deficiency and getting the calcium you need will require you to be intentional and informed. You take on the intention, and I’ll cover the informed bit? Alright, then. Here we go…
How much calcium do you need?
I’ve put together a table of the daily calcium guidelines for those most likely to read this blog as recommended by the British Dietetic Association.
Daily Calcium Guidelines
|800 mg girls, 1000 mg boys|
|Adults (19+ years)||700 mg|
|Breastfeeding moms||1250 mg|
|Post-menopausal women||1000 mg|
|Inflammatory Bowel Diseases||1000 mg adults, |
1200 mg post-menopausal women and men >55 years
Rather than worry about counting up the milligrams, it is best to think in terms of whole foods. Know where your calcium sources are and be intentional.
What foods is calcium found in?
Dairy Sources of Calcium. If dairy doesn’t cause problems for you, it is a very effective food group bets in terms of getting the calcium your body needs. Dairy is inherently high in calcium, and the calcium is very readily absorbed by your body.
Non-dairy Sources of Calcium. The following are dairy free- though, not vegan- sources.
1- Canned sardines, salmon & tuna– those soft bones in tinned fish are packed with calcium.
2- Greens. Here’s the deal- not all greens are created equal when it comes to calcium delivery. Spinach, beet greens, and swiss chard – though technically high in calcium- are also high in oxalates which bind up the calcium and prevent it from being absorbed by your body. This does not mean they are inferior in other respects. These same greens are also high in Vitamin K- also essential for bone health. So, no playing the oxalates card as a reason to not eat your spinach. However, as calcium goes, Bok choi, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, and broccoli are your better bets as they are lower in oxalates. Here is a list of the higher calcium containing greens and what you can expect to get from them…
- bok choi – 7% DV per 1 cup raw
- kale – 10 % DV per 1 cup raw
- mustard greens – 8% DV per 1 cup raw
- watercress – 4% DV per 1 cup raw
- broccoli – 4% DV per 1 cup raw
Notice the serving sizes. They are…generous. Keep this in mind and sneak the greens in via salads, smoothies, and soup mix ins. A little here and there will add up!
3- Tahini! Man, I love this stuff. Two tablespoons have 12% of your DV of calcium. Not bad for such a little seed!
4- Many nuts are also decent sources of calcium. Almonds would be the highest with 1/4 a cup giving you 9% of your DV, but peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios also up your calcium a bit with 1/4 cup of these nuts giving you about 3%.
5- Calcium carbonate enriched foods such as soy/almond/oat/coconut milks and calcium set tofu. These are not only high in calcium, but studies show the calcium is just as readily absorbed by the body as their dairy alternatives. Just be sure to shake those cartons- even the most readily absorbed calcium will do you no good if it remains sludge at the bottom of the carton.
Bonus- I can’t not mention blackstrap molasses as it is high in calcium- 1 tablespoon gives 4% of your DV! I don’t have it on my official list, though, for practicality reasons – how often are you kicking back molasses by the tablespoonfuls unless it is in cookie form? And I’m not about to recommend you have a couple molasses cookies a day for the sake of strong bones. Nice try.
I mentioned the oxalates when discussing greens, but there are other things in our diet that can also decrease how much calcium we are able to absorb.
- Too much protein. This is where “uber healthy” people can get into trouble. Ditch the protein powders, go heavy on the plant-based foods. Too much protein will lead to calcium loss in your urine.
- Phytates. These bad boys are why I can’t put beans on the list of high-calcium sources. Though they have the calcium to merit the list, the phytates block absorption. Obviously beans are still an excellent food choice for other reasons (fiber, magnesium, phytochemicals), calcium just isn’t one of them.
- Too much coffee/tea- no more than 3 cups! Caffeine over 300 mg a day can increase the calcium you lose in your urine.
- Too much salt. Lay off the processed foods, and you should be fine.
- Colas. Surprisingly, not other soft drinks- just the dark ones- not that I’m about to advocate a Sprite over water either. But, the high phosphorous content in colas interfere with calcium absorption.
- Corticosterioids. If you are on this type of a prescription medication for more than 6 weeks, you will need to increase your calcium intake by about 300 mg per day over the normal recommendations.
- Alcohol. Calcium loss is just one of the many devastating effects of drinking too much too often. Alcohol affects the enzymes that work with Vitamin D and off your calcium balance.
Supplements can have side effects that can…cramp your style, shall we say? To sidestep the stop-up, look for calcium citrate (vs the common calcium carbonate option), break it up in smaller doses 3 times a day, and take with food as well as a magnesium supplement. There is also conflicting research that suggests that getting over 1400 mg per day through supplement + diet can be dangerous. The research is conflicting, so don’t freak out, but don’t go overboard with the supplements either.
On the off-chance you want to know anything more about calcium after this monster of a post, I have provided some great references for you.
Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115:801-810.
What about you?
What are your favorite dishes/smoothies/other ways of sneaking in calcium? I’d love to hear what you do!