How do I get enough calcium when dairy free?
Taking dairy out of your diet also means taking dairy calcium out of the diet, which can be a problem if not adequately replaced.
Removing dairy also removes some vitamin D, which is a double whammy as vitamin D is important for boosting your calcium absorption from the gut. They tend to wok together.
How much calcium do I need?
The table below will help you work out how much calcium you need based on your age and stage in life.
CALCIUM NEED (mg)
SERVES OF CALCIUM
Pregnancy or breast feeding: 18 years or under
Pregnancy or breast feeding > 18 years
2 1/2 serves
Women: 19 - 50 years
2 1/2 serves
Women > 50 years
Men 19-70 years
2 1/2 serves
Men > 70 years
It is easy to get the calcium we need when we have dairy in our diets as dairy food is rich in calcium, easily absorbable, and so an easy eat in amounts that contain ample calcium.
For example, a serve of dairy (250 - 300mg calcium) = 1 cup of milk (250mls) or 40g cheese or a little tub of yoghurt (200ml or grams).
Other non dairy foods that contain calcium
The easiest way to replace the dairy calcium is to make sure you choose a plant milk that contains the same amount of calcium as a cup of cow's milk.
Look for 200-250mg of calcium per cup of milk or 100-120mg of calcium per 100ml of milk. The nutritional panel on the product will give you this information.
Plant milks are not very nutritional, so they won't provide all the other nutrition you get from dairy milk, including vitamin D, but 2 cups per day of calcium fortified plant milks: such as oat milk or almond milk will give you 600mg of calcium- same as taking a supplement.
Just take care, as many alternative plant milks may not be enriched with calcium. In Australia, this is true of most oat milks used in cafes.
Soy milk: a special mention
Soy milk is the only plant milk that is actually nutritional- soy milk is usually fortified with calcium, but additionally naturally provides all the protein, fat and vitamins and minerals you find in cow's milk. It is easily the best dairy milk substiutue- if soy is tolerated.
Often, soy milk may not be tolerated when dairy milk is an issue- especially for babies. Adults may show more tolerance when dairy protein is an issue.
Non dairy foods high in calcium
The most absorbable calcium found in non dairy foods are when we eat fish including bones such as tinned salmon. Tinned tuna does not have bones so the natural calcium content is low, however there are some types of tuna where calcium has been added.
Check the table below.
SARDINES: canned + bones: 90g small tin
PINK SALMON: canned + bones: 90g small tin
TUNA- tinned: 100g small tin
Tinned tuna: calcium enriched: 78g tin
Background calcium foods
Most non dairy foods contain calcium that looks impressive on paper, but is much less absorbable than calcium from dairy and fish bones.
These are foods such as spinach, figs, sesame seeds or tahini and almonds. The amounts needed to make up a full serve are too high for normal consumption, however, they provide important back ground calcium that all adds up.
Check out the following table that shows the amount of calcium these foods provide for when normally eaten and how much would be needed to equal a serve of dairy food.
SPINACH (cooked): 1/2 cup
SPINACH: 150g (4 cups raw)
FIGS: 1 (30g)
FIGS: 4 (120g)
TAHINI: 1 TBSP (20g)
TAHINI: 75g (4 TBSP)
ALMONDS: 10 (12g)
ALMONDS: 80 (100g)
Include these foods to help enrich your daily calcium intake but doubt rely on them alone.
Other foods also provide back ground calcium- foods we don't think of. Check out the table below.
Broccoli: 2 florets
If you can't eat enough calcium daily to meet your needs, you may need to think about a calcium supplement. Splittingt up a supplement over the day can help maximise absorption. It is especially useful to split up calcium so you are having less than 500mg in a single dose.
Take calcium separately from iron or iron rich meals (iron rich foods include red meat, chicken, fish and shellfish) as iron and calcium compete. For example, take calcium at breakfast rather than at dinner when you may be eating iron rich foods.
Calcium supplements come in different forms: the general calcium supplements are in a calcium carbonate form.
You can use other calcium supplements, just be aware of how much calcium is available for the body.
For example, calcium carbonate (caltrate) has 40% elemental calcium while calcium citrate has ½ this (24%) elemental calcium so dosage would have to be higher.
Don't forget vitamin D- a low vitamin D or a vitamin D deficiency, means any extra calcium you take to supplement your diet may not be well absorbed. There are plenty of supplements around that provide both calcium and vitamin D together for that very reason.
Keep your bones healthy and strong: make sure you have enough replacement calcium (plus vitamin D supplements if you are vitamin D deficient) if avoiding dairy in your diet, or having inadequate dairy intake.