How To Get Calcium Without Dairy, And Why You Need It!
First up, let’s be clear I am neither for, nor against dairy as a food group. There are many nutritional benefits of dairy but I also understand why some avoid it for ethical reasons, or if it just doesn’t agree with them. I’m not here to promote dairy nor bash it this is purely educating you on how to get in your calcium (and why you really need to!) if you do choose to avoid dairy for whatever reason.
Why Do We Need Calcium?
Since we were kids we’ve been told we must get in our 3 glasses of milk a day so we can meet our recommended calcium intake, but why is this so important? There is no argument that calcium is vital for strong bones and teeth, but beyond this calcium is also involved in
regulating blood pressure
release of hormones
maintaining a normal heart rhythm.
Yet despite calcium being such an essential mineral in our diet, less than 50% of Australians meet the recommended calcium intake!
Of the calcium in our bodies 99% is stored in our bones. Meaning when we see our calcium levels on our blood tests, this is not a true indication of our calcium stores, this value represents <1% of your total calcium. If you want to know more about your calcium take a look at your bones by getting a bone mineral density scan.
I don’t think I need to state it but I will anyway, strong bones are ESSENTIAL for a long, active, healthy life. Weak and brittle bones are not conducive to health and wellness in old age, and in saying that we are starting to see osteoporosis younger and younger, it’s not just old age now!
Peak bone mass, the maximum bone density you will ever have typically occurs in our early twenties. After this we have a steady decline in bone mass. The more calcium we consume the more we can slow this decline, but we cannot stop the gradual decline. So what does this mean? We need to reach the highest possible peak bone mass in our twenties and slow the decline by continuing to have a good calcium intake as we age.
Summary: Calcium is ESSENTIAL for strong bones and teeth as well as many other functions in the body. We reach peak bone mass in our twenties after which bone mass declines. Sufficient dietary calcium will help reach a high bone mass and slow the decline.
How much do we need?
The dietary guidelines for calcium intake were developed taking into consideration the poor absorption of calcium in many foods. The table below describes the amount of calcium required based on your age/stage of life.
Is there a difference if you don’t consume dairy?
Long term vegans typically have lower bone mineral density and lower calcium intake. The evidence shows the risk of bone fracture in long term vegans is higher than that in vegetarians (who consume dairy) or omnivores. This risk is reduced when vegans consume adequate calcium. One concern is that the vegan diet being high in vegetables and wholegrains makes it high in phytates and oxalates which inhibit the absorption of calcium. However, provided that vitamin D intake and calcium intake is adequate and measures are being taken to reduce phytate and oxalate rich foods, vegans should not need to worry about increased risk of fractures. The key is get in enough calcium from foods low in phytates and oxalates.
Summary: Provided calcium intake is adequate and from highly absorbable sources vegans should not worry about increased risk of bone fractures.
What interferes with calcium absorption?
Bioavailability of calcium, or of any nutrient for that matter, refers to how well your body absorbs that nutrient. A particular food may be a great source of calcium but if we as humans cannot breakdown or extract that nutrient from the food then it serves as little benefit to us. Oxalates and phytic acid are the two main blockers to calcium absorption. Oxalates are found in: spinach, rhubarb, swiss chard, almonds, cashews and peanuts (plus many other foods). This is what makes spinach such a poor source of calcium despite being one of the most calcium rich foods! Unfortunately when it comes to oxalates cooking doesn’t help absorb the nutrients any better. Phytates are found mostly in wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes however fortunately cooking, fermenting, soaking or sprouting can reduce the phytic acid content of these foods and allow the nutrients to become more available to us.
Other factors affecting your calcium absorption:
Low Vitamin D
Medical conditions impairing nutrient absorption (e.g untreated coeliac disease)
Medications e.g. prednisone
DAIRY-FREE SOURCES OF CALCIUM:
Calcium fortified plant milks: look for brands that have >100mg calcium per 100ml milk
Tofu set with calcium: Not all tofu is created equally here. Some are set with magnesium chloride. You want to look out for tofu which has added firming agent (516) calcium sulphate.
Tahini and almond butter: Yes sesame seeds and almonds are good sources too but a tbsp almond butter or tahini has more than a tbsp of nuts (purely due to the condensed nature of the product)
Blackstrap molasses: A great alternative to honey or maple syrup
Dark green leafy vegetables: kale, broccoli, bok choy, chinese mustard greens, turnip greens (while spinach is high in calcium it is incredibly poorly absorbed - you virtually get no calcium out of it due to the high oxalate content)
White beans or chickpeas: soaked and cooked or canned and washed and drained
Sardines, mussels or canned salmon with bones: Obviously not if you’re vegan, but great if you just avoid dairy!
Dried Figs: The best when it comes to fruit for calcium.
Calcium fortified cereals/juices: I put this last purely because many of the calcium fortified breakfast cereals and juices are laden with added sugars, so be mindful of that.
Example of 1300 mg Calcium on a Vegan Diet:
Breakfast: ½ cup oats + 1 cup calcium fortified almond or soy milk + 1 tbsp almond butter + ½ tbsp blackstrap molasses
Snack: 5 dried figs + 2 tbsp almonds
Lunch: ½ cup chickpeas + 1 cup kale cooked (2 cups raw) + ½ cup quinoa + cucumber + tomato + ½ cup cooked sweet potato + balsamic dressing
Snack: smoothie with 1 cup calcium fortified almond milk + 1 banana + ½ tbsp blackstrap molasses + cinnamon + ice
Dinner: 170g calcium set tofu + 1/2 cup cooked broccoli + ½ cup chinese mustard greens + capsicum stir fried with 1 tbsp tahini and soy sauce & brown rice
What about calcium supplements?:
It is always best to aim for natural or at least food based sources of calcium, however for some that can be too challenging. Calcium supplements, like many foods are not well absorbed so many supplements on the market have high doses to counter the poor absorption. There are two main types of supplements; calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Carbonate requires stomach acid in order to be absorbed meaning you must have these supplements with a meal. Calcium citrate on the other hand is not dependent on stomach acid, meaning you can take this supplement at any point in time.
Regardless of your choice to include or exclude dairy I strongly recommend getting calcium from a variety of food sources, animal or plant!
If you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies or inadequacy in your diet you can make a booking for a Skype consultation with me here