If you’re dairy-free, can you still get enough calcium?
Yes, but you’ll need to focus like a Zen monk on non-dairy sources of calcium.
This might mean filling your plate with green vegetables, consuming edible bones in canned fish, or even supplementing with bone meal powder.
You’ll be glad you did. In ten, twenty, or thirty years, your skeleton will be stronger for it.
Read on to learn if dairy is healthy, thoughts on calcium supplementation, and twenty non-dairy calcium-rich foods. First, though, let’s give a brief overview of calcium.
Why You Need Calcium
First and foremost, you need calcium to build bone. That’s why over 99% of bodily calcium is found in the skeleton.[*]
Bone forms and breaks down throughout life. Growing children need extra calcium for bone growth, while adults need less for bone maintenance. (See table 1 of this fact sheet.)
Needs rise again for adults over 70 to stave off bone density decline. Keep in mind, however, that calcium is only one factor (along with vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin K, phosphorus, and exercise) influencing bone health.
Beyond bone health, calcium also serves as an electrolyte, conducting electricity to power your nervous system.
That’s why a calcium imbalance can cause arrhythmias, muscle spasms, and tremors.[*] Your muscles (including your heart) require calcium to contract and relax.
Are Dairy Sources of Calcium Healthy?
Every child knows that dairy is an excellent source of calcium. Below are the calcium contents of a few common milk products. (Note: the RDA for calcium for adults aged 19-50 is 1000 mg.)[*]
- Plain yogurt (415 mg per 8 oz)
- Mozzarella cheese (333 mg per 1.5 oz)
- Skim milk (299 mg per cup)
Let’s move beyond calcium. Assuming you can tolerate dairy, is it healthy?
That depends on the product. The dairy aisle is jammed with fruity yogurts, chocolate milk, and sugary milkshakes.
These pseudo-foods are marketed as nutritious because they contain calcium. But they’re really just sugar bombs that make us fat, sick, and tired.
Whole-fat dairy without added sugar can be nutritious, though. Whole milk, butter, heavy cream, and ghee are rich in micronutrients like CLA, vitamin A, lactoferrin, lysozyme, and—yes—calcium.
What If You Can’t Eat Dairy?
If you can’t eat dairy, you’re not alone.
A smaller group is allergic to dairy. For these folks, even trace amounts of dairy can trigger life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Beyond intolerance or allergy, you might avoid dairy because:
- You’re limiting saturated fat to manage cholesterol
- You don’t like the taste
- You once had a bad piece of cheese and the memory haunts you
Regardless of why you’re shunning dairy, you still need to get your gram of daily calcium. Enter non-dairy sources of calcium.
Which non-dairy foods are high in calcium? The short version: edible bones, seeds, and green vegetables.
The extended version is next.
Top 20 Non-Dairy Foods High In Calcium
- Canned sardines with bones (325 mg per 3 oz)
- Sesame seeds (280 mg per oz)
- Soybeans, cooked (262 mg per cup)
- Canned mackerel (250 mg per 3 oz)
- Spinach, cooked (240 mg per cup)
- Oatmeal (234 mg per cup)
- Canned pink salmon with bones (181 mg per 3 oz)
- Broccoli, cooked (180 mg per cup)
- Molasses (135 mg per tbsp)
- Arugula, raw (125 mg per cup)
- Chard, cooked (100 mg per cup)
- Acorn squash (90 mg per cup)
- Turnip greens, boiled (99 mg per ½ cup)
- Kale, cooked (94 mg per cup)
- Almonds (80 mg per oz)
- Dandelion greens (80 mg per cup)
- Chia seeds (76 mg per tablespoon)
- Bok choy, raw (74 mg per cup)
- Canned pinto beans (54 mg per ½ cup)
- Kiwi (50 mg per cup)
Not all calcium sources, however, are equally absorbed.
Bioavailability refers to the fraction of a compound (like calcium) that’s absorbed through the gut and used or stored in the body. Unfortunately, most of the calcium we consume isn’t absorbed.
The bioavailability of dairy calcium is about 40%. Spinach calcium? Only 5%.[*]
Because so many factors influence calcium’s bioavailability, tracking it can be complicated. Let’s simplify.
The most bioavailable non-dairy sources of calcium are edible bones (i.e., canned fish) and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale. Other plant-based calcium sources (nuts, spinach, beans, etc.) are less desirable.
Should You Supplement Calcium?
Before deciding on supplements, determine your daily calcium intake. Log your meals for 1-3 days with the Carb Manager app and see where you stand.
Adults need about a gram of daily calcium to support healthy bones and teeth.[*] Are you hitting that target? If not, try to eat more calcium-rich foods.
But without dairy calcium, it can be hard to reach a gram. That’s where calcium supplements come in.
This is a controversial topic. Why? Because calcium supplements (though not dietary calcium) have been linked to increased heart disease risk.[*]
Taking too much calcium at once increases soft tissue calcification, creating conditions of arterial calcification. Bad news for the heart.
You can mitigate this concern by consuming reasonable portions (200-400 mg) of bone meal powder with meals. Unlike the jumbo pill that may spike serum calcium, eating bone meal mimics how we consume calcium through diet.
Getting Enough Calcium Without Dairy
You can get enough calcium without dairy, but it takes effort. And you may need to supplement.
The effort is worth it, though. A strong skeleton is a crucial component of being a strong human.