Don’t eat dairy? Where do you get your calcium?

Calcium is one of the most essential nutrients required by the body. Not only do we need it for strong bones BUT it’s required for many of body’s simple life functions; we need it for our muscles to move; our nerves to transmit vital messages; for the release of hormones & enzymes; for the health of our teeth. That all looks & sounds very important…. Making it relatively simple to see that not getting enough calcium in one’s diet can be problematic.

The amount of calcium required by the body depends on your age, generally peaking during your teenage years when skeletal & bone growth are occurring rapidly.

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 6 months 200 mg
Infants 7–12 months 260 mg
Children 1–3 years 700 mg
Children 4–8 years 1,000 mg
Children 9–13 years 1,300 mg
Teens 14–18 years 1,300 mg
Adults 19–50 years 1,000 mg
Adult men 51–70 years 1,000 mg
Adult women 51–70 years 1,200 mg
Adults 71 years and older 1,200 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding teens 1,300 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding adults 1,000 mg

It’s scary when you look at the statistics and discover that 90% of us are probably not getting enough calcium. Our bodies cannot produce it, we must get it from our diet. If we don’t? We leach it out of our bones, making them brittle & opening up a whole series of health risks that none of us want to deal with.

When most people think calcium they assume milk, yoghurt & cheese; well yes they are absolutely correct, those are very good dairy based sources of calcium. A large majority of the population would get adequate calcium intake from sources such as these. 12% of your daily ccalcium-sourcesalcium requirements are found in 100ml of cows milk. Make it a glass and that’s around 30% of what you need.

What happens to those of us (like me) that can’t tolerate dairy? Those who are lactose intolerant? Where do we get calcium from?

Some of the best sources include

  • Greens & vegetables: kale, broccoli, turnip greens, Asian greens such as pak choi & fennel
  • Beans; soy beans, pinto beans, white beans.
  • Nuts & seeds: chia seeds, sesame seeds & almonds
  • Fruits: blackcurrants & oranges

How much of these foods do you need to eat to get your daily fix?

SPINACH SPINACH SPINACH. Really I think this little gem should get be labelled a ‘superfood’. 1 cup equates to 240mg of calcium. That’s ¼ of what you need on a daily basis. Other greens such as broccoli & kale are also good, but not quite calcium rich, with 1 cup being around 1/10th of what you need per day. So you can see you need A LOT of greens & veggies if they are going to be your sole source of this wonder nutrient.

Canned fish such as sardines, salmon & anchovies can contain up to 350mg per 100g. Not only is this a great source of calcium but contains a lot of other great essential vitamins and minerals. An important note here, you have to buy the fish with bones! That’s where all the calcium is hiding.

If you are anything like me and look for any opportunity to reach into the nut jar go for almonds, a handful of around 20 raw almonds can give you a good 80mg of calcium. They are also a good source of potassium & iron. Watch your intake though, nuts are very very calorie dense, believe it or not it is possible to eat too much of the good stuff.

Sesame seeds are another great one. Add one tablespoon to a salad to create a little crunch and you will ingest around 10% of your daily requirements. Who said sesame seeds were just for hamburger bun decoration?

Like most important minerals in our body calcium doesn’t work alone, rather it works in synergy with vitamin D and magnesium. We need adequate levels of both these minerals to ensure ingested calcium is actually absorbed into our cells.

Where do we get these from? Well vitamin D is obvious… the SUN and then there is oily fish such as salmon or sardines, cod liver oil and prawns. Some magnesium rich foods include nuts & seeds, avocado, broccoli, bananas, spinach & dark chocolate (as if you needed another excuse to have chocolate). There is a fair amount of cross over in terms of natural food sources when it comes to all three of these nutrients.

If taken in high doses, calcium and magnesium will compete for absorption in the body (>250mg), making it more likely for you to be deficient in one or the other. If you are taking supplements be mindful to take them at separate times, for example one in the evening & one in the morning. This isn’t such an issue when it comes to natural food sources as rarely are the doses found in a meal that high.

Factors that can affect calcium absorption include too much caffeine, excessive alcohol, smoking, low levels of physical activity and a diet excessively high in salt.

Logistically it’s easier to consume adequate calcium through a balance of dairy & non-dairy sources. One must work alot harder to get enough through non dairy sources discussed above BUT if you are aware of the right foods it is certainly possible. If you eat a well balanced diet filled with lots of leafy green vegetables, enough of the ‘good fats’ and lots of protein you should have nice strong bones & pearly white teeth!

Want some more information?

This article raises some great points and also lists the calcium levels in many of the common foods that we eat.