I am considering giving up dairy but I'm concerned about calcium. Is it possible to get enough calcium without eating milk, yogurt and cheese?
Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, is vital for building strong bones and teeth, but it's also needed for muscle contraction, nerve function and the release of hormones and enzymes that affect several body processes. Research suggests that getting enough calcium may guard against premenstrual syndrome, high blood pressure, colorectal cancer and calcium oxalate kidney stones.
It's true that dairy is an exceptional source of calcium. But it's not the only source. Far from it. Other excellent sources of calcium make it entirely possible to meet daily calcium needs from a dairy-free diet. And many of these foods are also brimming with other beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals.
Adults, aged 19 to 50, need 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. After age 50, calcium requirements increase to 1,200 mg a day for women. For men, daily calcium needs increase to 1,200 mg after the age of 70. Children and teenagers, 9 to 18, require 1,300 mg of the nutrient each day. Younger children (4 to 8 years) need 1,000 mg and one- to three-year-olds need 700 mg daily.
If you substitute cow's milk with a fortified non-dairy beverage (e.g. soy, almond, rice, coconut) in smoothies and on breakfast cereal, you'll get just as much calcium as you would if you used milk.
As with milk, they also provide 100 IU of vitamin D per one cup. (Check the nutrition label: fortified plant beverages provide 25 to 30 per cent of the daily value (DV) for calcium and 25 to 45 per cent of the DV for vitamin D.)
Cultured coconut milk, a dairy-free alternative to yogurt, is also fortified with calcium.
Canned salmon (with bones) and sardines are also calcium-rich foods. Here's a bonus: salmon is among the very few foods that contain vitamin D, a nutrient that works with calcium to boost bone health. Add one-half of a tin of salmon to your green salad and you'll get as much as 880 IU of vitamin D, the amount found in nearly nine cups of milk.
Including green vegetables, such as kale, bok choy, spinach, broccoli and rapini, in your daily diet will also help increase your calcium intake. You'll get more calcium if you eat your vegetables cooked rather than raw. That's because some plant foods contain oxalates, natural compounds that bind to calcium causing it to be poorly absorbed. Cooking vegetables increases the amount of calcium that's available for absorption by releasing what's bound to oxalates.
Leafy green vegetables are also high in vitamin K, a nutrient that large studies have linked to better bone health.
Beans, nuts and seeds can supply considerable calcium to your diet, too. So does firm tofu that's been processed with calcium (look for calcium sulfate on the ingredients list).
While I advise meeting calcium requirements from foods first, some people with higher calcium requirements, such as adolescents and older adults, may need to take a calcium supplement to bridge the gap in their diet. As always, speak to your health-care provider about the supplementing safely.
For many people, getting a day's worth of calcium from a dairy-free diet means eating more plant-foods, foods that provide calcium as well as plenty of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. That's hardly a tradeoff.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.
Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
Looking for calcium beyond the dairy case
Use the following chart to help you add calcium-rich foods to a dairy-free diet.
Food Calcium (milligrams)
Calcium fortified plant & fruit beverages
Almond milk, 1 cup 300 to 330
Coconut milk, 1 cup 300 to 330
Cultured coconut milk, 3/4 cup 165 to 385
Hemp milk, 1 cup 300 to 330
Oat milk, 1 cup 300 to 350
Rice milk, 1 cup 300 to 330
Soy milk, 1 cup 300 to 330
Orange juice, 1 cup 300 to 360
Salmon, canned, with bones, 1/2 can (106 g) 220
Sardines, 1 can (80 g) 275
Beans & Soy
Baked beans, 1 cup 154
Black beans, 1 cup 84
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas), 1 cup 65
Kidney beans, 1 cup, cooked 92
Navy beans, cooked, 1 cup 123
Pinto beans, cooked, 1 cup 175
Soybeans, cooked, 1 cup 261
Soy nuts, roasted, 1/4 cup 60
Tofu, raw, firm, with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cup 253
Nuts, Seeds & Nut butters
Almonds, whole, 1/4 cup 94
Almond butter, 2 tbsp. 112
Brazil nuts, 1/4 cup 53
Tahini, 2 tbsp. 128
Cabbage, cooked, 1 cup 72
Beet greens, cooked 1 cup 164
Bok choy, cooked, 1 cup 158
Broccoli, cooked, 1 cup 62
Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup 266
Kale, cooked, 1 cup 94
Okra, cooked, 1 cup 124
Rapini (Broccoli raab), cooked, 1 cup 200
Spinach, cooked, 1 cup 245
Swiss chard, cooked, 1 cup 102
Turnip greens, cooked, 1 cup 197
Figs, dried, 5 68
Orange, 1 medium 52
Blackstrap molasses, 1 tbsp. (15 ml) 180
Source: Leslie Beck, RD