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How to Get Enough Calcium When You’re Dairy-Free

By slaber89

Many people are eliminating dairy from their diet for reasons such as skin breakouts, allergies and digestive discomfort. In fact, it’s been reported that up to 65% of the population has an intolerance to lactose (the natural sugar in dairy). Lactose intolerance occurs when there is a reduced ability to digest lactose. It can cause symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea or gas if not treated properly (1).

That said, some people can tolerate dairy just fine and don’t have any adverse reactions when they consume it. For those that do have problems with dairy or choose to eliminate it for personal reasons though, removing it from the diet is definitely doable.

But What about calcium?

Calcium is a mineral that is important for bones, muscles, hormones and enzymes in the body. When we don’t consume enough calcium, it can lead to problems like muscle cramps, weak bones and teeth, and increased PMS symptoms.

Sometimes when people go dairy-free they assume they need to start taking a calcium supplement to obtain enough calcium, but that’s not always the case. Yes, dairy is a great source of calcium, but you can still get enough calcium through non-dairy sources as well. That’s because calcium is found in a lot of non-dairy foods such as leafy greens, beans, almonds, and oranges. If you focus on eating a diet that’s balanced and contains a good amount of variety and colors, chances are you will be able to obtain enough calcium through diet alone.

What Are Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium?

Below are some common non-dairy foods of calcium to incorporate on a dairy-free diet (2).

Dairy-Free Sources Amount of Calcium
Sardines, 3 oz. 370 mg
Figs, dried, 1 cup 300 mg
Sesame Seeds, 1 oz. 280 mg
Spinach, cooked, 1 cup 240 mg
Salmon, canned, 3 oz. 210 mg
Broccoli, cooked, 1 cup 180 mg
Amaranth, cooked, ½ cup 135 mg
Arugula, raw, 1 cup 125 mg
Chard, cooked, 1 cup 100 mg
Acorn Squash, cooked, 1 cup 90 mg
Almonds, 1 oz. 80 mg
Oranges, 1 large 70 mg
White Beans, cooked, ½ cup 70 mg
Almonds, 1 oz. 80 mg

The list above is not a complete list of all the sources of calcium, but examples of food items that contain higher amounts of calcium.

Keep in mind that when you’re going dairy-free, it’s important to be consistent with consuming these dairy-free sources to obtain enough calcium each day.

How Much Calcium Do I Need?

The amount of calcium you need each day depend on your age and gender. The following is a list of the recommended calcium values per age and gender (3).

  • Adults, 19-50 years – 1,000 mg
  • Adult Men 51-70 years – 1,000 mg
  • Adult Women 51-70 years – 1,200 mg

What About Calcium Supplements?

If you find that you aren’t able to obtain adequate calcium through food alone, taking a calcium supplement may be beneficial. Two common forms of calcium found in supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Both have pros and cons.

Calcium carbonate has the highest amount of elemental calcium (about 40%), and is one of the most common forms of calcium found in supplements. This form requires stomach acid for absorption which means you have to take it with food.

Calcium citrate has about 20% elemental calcium, but is easier to absorb in the body since it doesn’t require stomach acid (4).

Nonetheless, if you decide to take a calcium supplement it’s best to talk with a health professional to see if that would be the best option for you.

Dairy-Free Sample Meal Plan

So what could a day of dairy-free foods look like? Below is a sample meal plan.

Breakfast Lunch Dinner Snack
Scrambled eggs cooked in coconut oil with 1 cup spinach, coffee or tea with almond milk Arugula salad topped with chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, ½ cup white beans, avocado slices, 1 oz. sesame seeds, and an olive oil-based dressing. 3 oz. salmon served with 1 cup cooked broccoli, and sweet potato topped with coconut butter. Apple with 2 oz. almonds.

Estimated calcium intake: 1,265 mg

Things to Keep in Mind When Going Dairy-Free

  • Avoid taking calcium-rich with iron-rich foods. These two nutrients compete against each other for absorption, so it’s best to take them at different times (5).
  • Our bodies can only absorb 500 mg at one time: Instead of loading up on calcium-rich foods all in one meal, it’s important to spread intake out through the day. Also, if you take a calcium supplement avoid taking more than 500 mg at one time.
  • You also need other nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, and magnesium to help absorb calcium: Calcium doesn’t act alone, and needs other nutrients like Vitamin D, Vitamin K2 and magnesium to help increase absorption.
  • More is not always better: Too much of anything isn’t good, so avoid going over the recommended amount of calcium each day.
  • Focus on natural sources of calcium vs. fortified foods: Aim to incorporate more natural sources of calcium such as salmon, broccoli, or almonds vs. fortified foods such as cereals or fortified orange juice.

Conclusion

Going on a dairy-free diet can have its challenges, but getting enough calcium throughout the day without dairy can be done. Focus on eating a balanced diet and incorporate a variety of non-dairy food sources of calcium each day to make sure you’re getting enough.