We all know calcium is an important mineral for bone and cardiovascular health. But did you know that dairy isn’t the only good source? If you’re lactose intolerant, eat a plant-centric diet, or prefer to limit your dairy, this post covers the best non-dairy sources of calcium and how you can increase its absorption.
There are a few reasons why someone may not consume much dairy, or any at all. If you fall into this camp, you may have wondered how you can make sure you get enough calcium in your diet. If so, I’m so glad you’re here to learn more, because calcium is a very important mineral.
Many of you probably know that I don’t consume much dairy. This is not because I’m vegan, but because I have a history of not digesting it well and because it’s not necessary for me, or most people, to thrive. But that’s for another post!
Am I anti-dairy? Nope. Not at all. I do eat it from time to time. But, I am in favour of emphasizing other kinds of foods for obtaining calcium (and other vital nutrients).
Why Calcium is Important
Calcium is an important mineral for everyone. It’s essential for healthy bones and teeth, and for heart, muscle, and nerve function. Without sufficient calcium, we can see issues with blood clotting, the transmission of nerve impulses, and the regulation of the heart’s rhythm. About 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in bones and teeth, while the remaining 1% is found in blood, muscle, and other tissues.
The body gets calcium in two ways:
- Eating foods or taking supplements that contain calcium
- Drawing from calcium stores in the body if needed, primarily the bones
The Key to Optimal Calcium Absorption
While calcium is essential for bone health, so is boron, strontium, magnesium, and especially the fat-soluble vitamins D and K2. In fact, this synergistic relationship is even more beneficial for bone and cardiovascular health than calcium alone.
Vitamin D plays a main role in regulating calcium metabolism by increasing intestinal calcium absorption. Vitamin K2 on the other hand plays a few roles. It helps regulate the activity of a bone protein called osteocalcin which is partly responsible for bone mineralization. However, osteocalcin requires vitamin K2 to become fully active. Vitamin K2 also keeps calcium from accumulating in the walls of blood vessels and other places it shouldn’t be.
If you need to take calcium supplements, I recommend looking for formulations that include vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium alongside the calcium. I like New Chapter’s Bone Strength, but always consult your doctor.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
Generally speaking, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300mg of calcium per day is recommended for adults and children, both men and women. This amount differs for babies and younger children.
If any of the below apply to you, you may need to pay special attention to your calcium intake:
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s or Colitis
- Celiac Disease which can lead to malabsorption via atrophy of microvilli in the small intestine (required for proper absorption of nutrients)
- Compromised digestion, such as low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria)
- Certain medications such as antacids/proton-pump inhibitors for conditions such as GERD (Gastroesophogeal Reflux Disease)
- Vegans and vegetarians
Is Dairy Essential?
It’s common to think that dairy is the best source of calcium or that it’s required for us to be healthy, since most of us have been told that throughout our lives. Don’t get me wrong, dairy products do indeed contain one of the highest concentrations per serving of calcium, but research (and people’s bodies) suggests that it’s not necessarily the best source for obtaining it, for reasons such as lactose intolerance or an intolerance to FODMAPs, dairy allergy, and the possibility of its link to ovarian and other cancers. More research is needed, however. Dairy is also a common food sensitivity, and there is research that shows a relationship between dairy and acne, and other skin conditions like eczema.
Dairy isn’t needed for getting adequate amounts of calcium as it’s not the only calcium-rich food. It’s also no longer an emphasis in the Canada’s Food Guide. The thing is, there’s an abundance of calcium-rich vegetables, legumes, nuts, and other foods available that also contain supporting nutrients that assist in the absorption of calcium, such as magnesium and vitamin K, as mentioned above.
The Best Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
When I was in school for nutrition I did a presentation on calcium. I wanted to do something interesting and interactive with my classmates, so I began my presentation with a question: “When you think about calcium, what comes to your mind?”
I received many answers. Bones, rocks, milk, cheese, chalk, the colour white. To which I turned to the next slide of my powerpoint, a large close-up image of dark green kale, and continued my presentation: “When you think about calcium, I want you to think of the colour green!”
Top Non-Dairy Calcium-Rich Foods
- Collards: 200mg per 1/2 cup
- Spinach: 150mg per 1/2 cup
- Turnip greens: 130mg per 1/2 cup
- Kale: 100mg per 1/2 cup
- Almonds (dry roasted): 100mg per 1/4 cup
- Tahini/sesame seed butter: 130mg per 2 tbsp
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans): 185mg per 1 cup
- Navy beans: ~120mg per 3/4 cup
- Sardines, with bones: 275mg per 2.5oz
- Salmon (pink, sockeye, with bones): ~200mg per 2.5oz
- Anchovies: 175mg per 2.5oz
- Other: fortified products (e.g. almond milk), figs, sea vegetables such as kelp, and blackstrap molasses
What Interferes with Calcium Absorption?
We now know that alongside eating calcium-rich foods, supporting nutrients like vitamin D, K, and magnesium are also needed to ensure we properly absorb it. But another factor when considering our calcium intake is what can interfere with its absorption.
- Caffeine: More than 400mg (about 2-3 cups of coffee per day) may impact calcium absorption. Try to keep your caffeine intake below the 400mg mark. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid amounts of more than 300mg per day.
- Alcohol: Limit your alcohol consumption
- Foods that contain oxalates such as spinach, sweet potatoes, and beans can reduce calcium absorption. You can minimize the oxalate content and its effects on calcium by cooking your greens and eating a diverse range of calcium-rich foods. The majority of people don’t have issues with oxalates, and you don’t need to avoid these foods if you’re meeting your calcium needs. If you have a history of kidney stones (calcium-oxalate kidney stones being the most common), speak to your health care provider if you have concerns.
- Medications: Ask your health care provider if any medications you take may affect calcium absorption, such as antacids.
The best thing you can do is to eat a plethora of diverse foods (especially the one’s mentioned above!) to ensure that you obtain adequate amounts of calcium each day. Talk to your doctor if you think you might benefit from a supplement. You don’t want to overdo it unnecessarily with calcium supplementation because it’s possible to get too much, which can have adverse cardiovascular effects. Enjoy leafy salads with salmon or tempeh, whip up a green smoothie with spinach, snack on almonds, try a tahini-based salad dressing, and get some sunshine for that essential vitamin D!