Non-Dairy Calcium Sources
If you are lactose-intolerant or vegan, or simply don’t like milk, cheese or yogurt, you still need to get calcium from the food you eat.
Luckily, there are many versatile and delicious non-dairy sources of calcium.
Marcy Dorsey, RD, a nutritionist with EvergreenHealth, recommends eating no more than one or two dairy servings a day and getting the rest of your calcium from a variety of foods.
“And get your nutrients from food first, before relying on supplements,” Marcy adds.
Calcium helps us maintain strong, healthy bones, helps our muscles and nerves function properly, and allows for normal blood clotting.
Our body regulates the amount of calcium in our blood for these functions, taking it from our bones if necessary, leading to weakened bones, or osteoporosis.
Too much calcium can be detrimental as well, leading to calcifications in soft tissue.
- Most adults need 1,000 mg of calcium per day.
- Women over 50 should get 1,200 mg to protect against osteoporosis.
- Children should get 700-1,300 mg daily depending on their age
In addition to calcium, Marcy stresses that you must also get adequate vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption to maintain bone density.
“You can’t rely on food for vitamin D,” Marcy says. “And here in the Northwest, we don’t get enough from sunshine in the fall and winter months. You need to get your vitamin D level tested by your doctor to determine how much vitamin D you should take in a supplement.”
Calcium absorption is affected by other nutrients as well:
- Magnesium is important to balance the calcium necessary for blood clotting and proper muscle function. Magnesium can be found in many of the same foods that are rich in calcium.
- Phytates, found in some grains and nuts, and oxalates, found in chocolate, tea, and coffee, as well as some vegetables, can bind to calcium to reduce absorption.
- Excess sodium and protein cause your kidneys to excrete calcium, which can lead to weakened bones.
For more information on bone health, visit the National Osteoporosis Foundation website, www.nof.org
Non-dairy ways to get your calcium
Marcy says that you can get all the calcium you need by eating a variety of healthy foods. She recommends these as some of the best non-dairy sources of calcium:
- Leafy greens such as collards, kale, and chard.
- Beans, including kidney, chickpeas and black-eyed peas, have around 80 mg of calcium per cup of cooked beans.
- Homemade stock, which Marcy calls “bone broth,” is a potent source of calcium. She stresses that store-bought stock does not have the nutrient density of homemade stock, which is made with meat and bones from chicken, beef or fish, because minerals come from cooking the bones.
- Tofu, the firm kind made with calcium sulfate (the label may say “calcium-packed”), can have up to 300-400 mg of calcium per serving – one third of your RDA. Try it in a stir fry over brown rice for a healthy, high-calcium meal.
- Nuts and seeds, like almonds and sesame seeds, are an easy way to add calcium and a little crunch to your dishes.
- Fruits can be a source of calcium, too. A medium orange has 75 mg, and two figs have 60 mg. Even some herbs and spices contain calcium.
- Fish, the kind canned with bones, like sardines and salmon, is high in calcium.
- Fortified foods, such as cereals, orange juice or non-dairy milks, can be good sources; just be sure to check the nutrition labels to see how much calcium they contain.
Here is a sampling of the calcium content of some non-dairy foods:
- Bok choy, cooked, 1 cup 330 mg
- Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup 260 mg
- Garbanzo beans, cooked, 1 cup 80 mg
- Soybeans, cooked, 1 cup 260 mg
- Tofu, firm, calcium-fortified, 1 cup 400 mg
- Almonds, ¼ cup 165 mg
- Walnuts, ¼ cup 70 mg
- Almond butter, 2 tablespoons 86 mg
- Sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons 110 mg
- Dried figs, 3 ounces 100 mg
- Dried apricots, 3 ounces 80 mg
- Salmon, canned with bones, 3 ounces 181 mg
- Sardines, canned with bones, 3 ounces 1000 mg
- Blackstrap molasses, 1 tablespoon 130 mg
If you eat a variety of foods with varying levels of calcium and get adequate vitamin D, you can easily meet your daily calcium needs even if dairy isn’t right for you.