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How to get enough calcium when you don’t eat dairy

Most people are aware of the importance of calcium to bone health and that dairy products are a dietary source of this mineral. Yet, what about those who do not wish to or who cannot consume dairy foods?

The good news is it is certainly possible to get enough calcium without consuming dairy. However, it is important to be aware that it does require more planning with your food intake to ensure you are consistently getting enough. This is because although many other foods contain calcium, the amount of calcium in a typical serving of different foods can vary significantly, so you want to make sure you are getting enough overall.

Some great examples of dairy-free sources of calcium include fish with edible bones (such as sardines or tinned salmon with the bones), tahini, sesame seeds, almonds, chia seeds, green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, bok choy, to name a few), and firm tofu that is set with a calcium salt. While these foods are all fantastic to include for their calcium content (and all the other nutrients they provide), it is important to be aware that some of these require much larger quantities to be consumed in order to provide a similar amount of calcium to a typical serving of dairy. You’ll find a more complete list of dairy-free, calcium-containing foods at the end of this article.

Many people find it helpful to consume a calcium-fortified non-dairy milk (such as almond, rice, or oat milk) in place of dairy milk, as another way of including some extra calcium in their day. When these milks are fortified with calcium, their calcium content will usually be similar to dairy milk so this can be a simple swap if you are new to a dairy-free way of eating. However, there are huge differences in the quality of dairy-free milks that are available in supermarkets now. It is possible to find some that do not have additives and other ingredients that you don’t necessarily recognise as foods, but it requires reading the ingredients list. Essentially, you want to look for an option that contains fewer ingredients and all (or at least mostly) ingredients that you recognise—ideally the only extra thing added would be the calcium.

Calcium is one of the trickier nutrients to assess, as we can’t simply do a blood test to check if we are getting enough like we can with vitamin D. If you do see calcium on your blood test, be aware that this isn’t actually a measure of your dietary calcium intake so it cannot be used to guide your food intake, unfortunately. This is because if you aren’t consuming enough calcium, your body will take calcium from your bones to maintain your blood calcium levels within the normal range. This is because maintaining blood calcium levels is higher up on the survival priority list for our body than maintaining great bone health. So, your blood levels are actually a reflection of this regulatory mechanism rather than your dietary intake.

Other factors also influence our calcium requirements. For example, caffeine not only blocks calcium absorption, but it leaches minerals from bones, so the more caffeine we consume, the higher the requirement for calcium consumption. These are all reasons why I recommend consulting with a qualified, experienced nutrition professional if you wish to or need to begin a dairy-free way of eating, just to make sure that you are meeting your nutrient needs based on your food choices and preferences.

Sources of calcium

  • Sardines and other fish with edible bones
  • Oysters
  • Calcium-fortified non-dairy milk (aim for at least 100mg calcium per 100mL)
  • Firm organic tofu (tofu that is set with a calcium salt will be higher in calcium – the calcium salts may be listed as firming agent number 509 or 516 in the ingredients list)
  • Tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • Chia seeds
  • Almonds
  • Green leafy vegetables – e.g. broccoli, silverbeet, kale, rocket, Asian greens, parsley
  • Dried figs

The foods closest to the top of the list are richer sources.

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