Nutrition Articles

11 Dairy-Free Calcium Sources

No Dairy? No Problem!

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When I was a wee tot, I frequently had stomach pains that were once bad enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. Everything looked fine according to the doctor, but my pains continued. Finally, an allergist diagnosed me with a milk allergy, and as soon as I stopped eating dairy, my symptoms disappeared. They said I might outgrow my allergy someday, but for the time-being I had a new problem. How would I get enough calcium if I wasn’t drinking any milk? Many people face a similar dilemma, whether they are forced to give up dairy because of an allergy, or because they choose to for other reasons.

There’s no doubt that calcium is essential. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the body maintains a constant level of calcium in the body fluid to support the many body functions for which calcium is necessary, including muscle contraction, blood vessel contraction and expansion, the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and sending messages through the nervous system. That means it’s needed to keep your heart beating and your muscles functioning, among other things. But the calcium in body fluids and muscles accounts for only about 1% of the total calcium in your body. The rest of it is stored in the bones and teeth, where it provides structural support and acts as a sort of “savings account” from which calcium is repeatedly withdrawn and deposited.

Although calcium intake is important throughout the life, the most important time for building up this savings account balance is during childhood, when there is a higher amount of bone formation and less breakdown. During adulthood, these processes are more equal, and then during later years, the breakdown takes over as the predominate process, which leads to weakening of the bones.

So what’s a kid (or anyone) who doesn’t drink milk to do? Get calcium from any of the many other places it can be found. You can find calcium in many plant-based foods, from almonds to tofu. Here is a list of some calcium-containing foods that are dairy-free, with the amount of calcium you’ll find in a single serving.

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Here’s how much calcium you’ll find in a single serving of each of the foods above.

Food Serving Size Calcium
Collard greens 1 cup, boiled 357 mg
Fortified soymilk 1 cup 368 mg
Black-eyed peas 1 cup, boiled 211 mg
Firm tofu (made with calcium sulfate) 1/2 cup 204 mg
Calcium-fortified orange juice 6 oz 200 mg
Blackstrap molasses 1 Tbsp 172 mg
Baked beans 1 cup, canned 154 mg
Kale 1 cup, cooked 94 mg
Chinese cabbage 1 cup, raw 74 mg
Oranges 1 cup 72 mg
Almonds 1 oz 70 mg

Here are some tips on how to incorporate many of these foods into your diet to increase your calcium intake:
  • Cook a vegetable stir-fry and toss in diced tofu made with calcium sulfate.
  • Add steamed and minced greens like collards and kale to casseroles, soups and stews.
  • Use calcium-fortified non-dairy milk (like soy or rice milk) instead of water in recipes such as pancakes, mashed potatoes, pudding and oatmeal.
  • Stir a drizzle of blackstrap molasses into your oatmeal.
  • Use almond butter instead of peanut butter.
  • Add calcium-rich beans like black-eyed peas to soups, pasta sauces, salads and burritos.
  • Enjoy canned baked beans as a side dish, or mix them into your favorite recipes.
If you’re not regularly eating enough of these foods to meet your calcium needs, you may want to consider a calcium supplement. After you consult your doctor to make sure this is right for you, your next step is choosing a supplement. Here are some guidelines that will help you:
  • Choose a brand you trust. Generic supplements might be a lower quality and might not be absorbed as well.
  • When comparing the potency of two different types, compare them by the amount of elemental calcium they contain, which should be listed on the label.
  • Choose one with the abbreviation "USP", which means that the supplement has met the standards of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) for quality, purity and tablet disintegration or dissolution.
  • Do not use calcium supplements made with unrefined oyster shell, bone meal or dolomite as they may also contain toxic substances like lead, mercury and arsenic.
In addition to eating the right foods and/or supplementing, there are a few other tips everyone should follow, whether eating dairy or not, to keep their bones strong.
  • Reduce your sodium intake. Increased sodium in the blood can cause your body to compensate by pulling more calcium from your bones to maintain balance. Cut back on your salt intake and your bones will stay strong.
     
  • Eat your veggies. In addition to their calcium content, many vegetables and fruits are good sources of potassium. According to the NIH, this mineral may help decrease calcium excretion in people who eat high sodium diets— particularly in postmenopausal women.
     
  • Don’t overdo the protein. As with sodium, the body’s reaction to excess protein can weaken bones. If you’re on a high-protein diet, be doubly sure you’re getting the recommended amount of calcium daily—at least 1,000 mg.
     
  • Exercise. Weight bearing exercise, like walking, step-aerobics, running, and hiking put stress on your bones, causing your body to respond by making them stronger.
     
  • Get ample amounts of Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps improve calcium absorption. Food and sunlight are your two sources for vitamin D. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “for bone health, an adequate intake of vitamin D is no less important than calcium.” Food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, tuna, and fortified breakfast cereals. According to the NIH, ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure at least two times per week to the face, arms, hands, or back (without sunscreen) is usually sufficient to provide adequate vitamin D.
Turns out there are lots of good (and tasty) ways to get calcium and to grow and support your bones without dairy, which is good news for me, because I never did outgrow that dairy allergy.

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople healthy eating expert, Tanya Jolliffe.

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Member Comments

  • Thank you for this article. I drink almond milk and take a calcium supplement but it's nice to have some other choices for calcium. Very informative!
  • SHELLCHELL
    Canned pink salmon should top this list.
  • Straight up milk makes me gag. I honestly get nauseous after I drink it. I've been drinking almond milk and it has worked wonders. I can eat cereal with milk again and it tastes better than cow milk to me!
  • I spread coconut oil on a cookie sheet and put spinach and kale on it. I dry it in the oven at 350 for about 20-30 minutes
  • Bring on the Kale and Collard greens. Ditch the soy! Bleh! that stuff is dangerous.
  • Wow! There are good foods on the list that I will have to add to my daily diet. Thanks!

    Calcium: Recommended Dietary Allowance 1000mg

    I can't see myself meeting all my calcium needs from the food on that list, unless I ate them all every single day. IMHO anything "fortified" is suspect- may as well take a supplement. I'm grateful I can tolerate dairy.
  • I hope the author of this article will check her numbers. Black eyed peas? 1/4 c. dry has 2%. I actually went out and bought a bag, because the canned ones said the same thing, and I figured that somehow the beans lost their nutritional value in the process of canning. Figs? I just bought some. 4 figs have 6%. How is that HIGH in calcium or calcium rich??
  • I'm not lactose intolerant but I just don't eat much dairy. I track my nutrition so it's good to know that I can just increase some of the foods that I already eat to get more Ca++/
  • I've always been lactose intolerant, so lots of this was familiar to me, but other things, like the kale, molasses, black-eyed peas were completely new to me. Now I need to figure out which I can add that won't cause gas (another problem I have). Thanks for the good article!
  • right now alot of areas feature farmers markets, a great place to look for blackstrap molasses and collard greens.
  • This is so good to know. I don't like milk.
  • Great information and good to know as I have an 20 year old son who was just diagnosed as Lactose intolerant after many trips to the Doctor. He's eliminated all milk products and feels wonderful! Nice to know his other options for calcium
  • Great article!! Lots of "not out there" info !!

    Stay away from the soda folks big stone maker for the kidneys!!
  • Hooray for the commentors who have taken the time to really educate themselves and are able to point out the inaccuracies in this (and other) SP article.
  • EX-SKINNY60
    This was very interesting. I had thyroid cancer and had it removed and the doctors at MDA want me to have 1800 mg of Calcium Carbonate a day. I try to eat healthy but availability and affordability of food can be tough waters to navigate. I love key limes and I squeeze them fresh each day in my water. I was told that drinking this first thing in the morning and off and on during the day flushes the kidney stone making particles out of the kidneys before they start. So far after 5 plus years, my kidneys are great!

About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

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