Dairy has been considered the gold standard calcium source for decades.
This makes sense as it is a very calcium-rich food source that has a high bioavailability compared to most plant-based sources. It is also already widely consumed in many countries in comparison to other non-dairy calcium-rich foods such as small fish with bones.
But dairy isn’t for everyone nor is it necessary to get sufficient calcium in your diet.
There are so many reasons why someone may want to cut dairy from their diet. These include dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, a general dislike of dairy products, or because they are converting to a plant-based or vegan diet.
Why is Calcium Important?
Adequate calcium intake is essential for the homeostasis of a number of bodily functions, including bone health.
The body stores all calcium reserves in the skeleton and the stability of this reserve is directly dependent on sufficient calcium intake and absorption to balance external losses.
Basically, when your calcium intake is low, your body will take from its internal sources (your bones) in order to have sufficient amounts in the blood. Your body considers the strength of your bones to be of less importance than calcium’s other vital roles in the body, including muscle and organ function.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
Recommendations for daily calcium intake vary significantly between countries.
Australia and the United States recommend that adults consume between 1000-1300mg of calcium per day to prevent osteoporosis.
The higher recommended levels are targeted to elderly people and postmenopausal women due to increases in calcium loss and decreases in calcium absorption.
The Best Sources of Calcium on a Dairy-Free Diet
Calcium Fortified Plant Milks
Calcium-fortified plant milk is one of the easiest substitutes to make when going dairy-free.
Whether your choice of milk is soy, almond, oat, rice, or any other plant milk, if it is calcium-fortified it is a good replacement for dairy milk.
Of course, there are other nutrient differences such as protein content but from the perspective of meeting your calcium requirements, that is the only thing we need to consider.
Not all plant-based milk will be fortified and some are fortified but not with a sufficient amount of calcium to match dairy milk.
When choosing plant-based milk, check the nutrition information panel to see if it has at least 120mg of calcium per 100mls.
Calcium Set Tofu
For anyone who is vegan or plant-based, one of the easiest things you can do to get your calcium intake up is swap to a calcium set tofu.
Tofu can either be set with magnesium or calcium salts and whilst soy naturally has some calcium content, tofu set with magnesium is not a great source of calcium.
On the other hand, when set with calcium sulfate, 100-150g of tofu can provide as much calcium as a cup of dairy milk.
If you live in Australia, the Evergreen hard tofu from Woolworths is excellent because it has ~350mg of calcium per 100g.
So next time you are picking up tofu, look for one that has calcium sulfate or (516) in the ingredients list.
Small Fish With Bones
If you aren’t avoiding animal products completely, fish with edible bones are a great non-dairy source of calcium.
Canned sardines contain around 320 mg of calcium per 85g serve, whilst canned salmon with bones contains ~180mg of calcium per 85g serving.
The significant calcium content of small fish with edible bones is to be expected as bones are an essential storage space for calcium reserves.
The brand John West also has a canned tuna range that is fortified with ground tuna bones to boost the calcium content. One 85g tin has over 1000mg of calcium which for most adults, is 100% of the recommended daily intake.
I know this is available throughout Australia but it may not be available in other parts of the world.
Other Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
There are a huge number of non-dairy and plant-based foods that contain calcium. However, these foods often have to be eaten in large quantities to get a significant amount of calcium.
They are also typically less bioavailable sources of calcium, meaning that you aren’t absorbing as much calcium from them as other foods. This is due to the co-presence of anti-nutrients such as phytates and oxalates.
I wouldn’t suggest using these foods as a primary source of calcium but they can absolutely boost your total daily calcium intake.
Dark Green Vegetables
Dark green vegetables such as kale, bok choy, and broccoli are fairly calcium-rich vegetables. They contain anywhere between 50-150mg per cup.
The catch is… that is a cup of cooked vegetables and 1 cup of cooked kale is a lot of kale.
To get an equivalent amount of calcium in a cup of dairy milk, you would be looking at 2-3 cups of cooked kale.
Sesame seeds contain ~150mg of calcium per tablespoon (20g).
That is actually not a great deal of food volume. You could easily eat one tablespoon of sesame seeds sprinkled over your morning avo on toast.
However, the calcium absorption from nuts and seeds isn’t very high so that is something to consider.
Blackstrap molasses is actually a pretty good source of calcium with ~200 mg per tablespoon (15g).
But if you are not a daily consumer of blackstrap molasses or intend on being one, that likely doesn’t help too much.
If you suffer from lactose intolerance you may still choose to include low lactose or lactose-free dairy products in your diet.
This can be a great way to meet calcium recommendations, particularly if plant-based milk, tofu, or fish isn’t your thing.
Good options to include in your diet would be:
- Lactose free milk (eg. Zymil)
- Lactose free yogurt or yogurt with the lactase enzyme added
- Utilising a lactase tablets alongside higher lactose foods
- Hard cheeses including Parmesan, Swiss and cheddar. Moderate portions of these cheeses can often be tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.
If you are unable to consume enough calcium from your diet on a consistent basis you may need a supplement.
Whilst a food-first approach should usually be considered first, it would be best to supplement if you can’t get enough calcium through your diet.
Calcium supplements can interfere with other prescription medications so it would be best to talk to your doctor before starting one.
Even though dairy is considered to be the gold standard calcium source, there are plenty of calcium-rich foods you can eat if going dairy-free.
It would be best to go for predominantly calcium-rich foods that are relatively bioavailable such as calcium-fortified plant milk, calcium set tofu, fish with bones, and low/no lactose dairy foods (if lactose intolerant).
Other plant-based foods such as sesame seeds and dark green vegetables can be used to boost calcium intake as well. Although due to lower calcium contents and lower bioavailability these should be considered secondary sources of calcium.
If you are really struggling to meet your calcium targets despite including some of these foods, it could be best to supplement.