Calcium is synonymous with milk, cheese and all things dairy. The iconic “Got Milk?” campaign would have you believe a tall glass of skim milk is a prerequisite to staying alive and well. But what foods are high in calcium besides dairy?
For starters, a lot. From vegetables to fish, there are plenty of ways to get your recommended intake of calcium, without consuming any dairy products. Below, we’ll take a look at some lesser-known calcium-rich dairy-free foods.
Why Is Calcium So Important?
Calcium, like many other minerals, occurs naturally in the body — particularly in your teeth and bones, as you might expect — but also in your muscles, bloodstream and connective tissues.
Calcium is key in helping you maintain healthy bones and ensure muscles and blood vessels are working. It also supports the proper function of hormones and enzymes and helps your nerves carry messages throughout your body.
And if all that isn’t enough, calcium plays a critical role in many other functions — regulating levels of other minerals like potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, as well as helping control cells’ ability to communicate with one another.
What’s more, your body can’t create more calcium, so it’s important for you to replace this mineral as needed. Naturally, it’s easy to see why the now-defunct food pyramid has long been a champion of milk, cheese and more.
How Much Calcium Do You Really Need?
The amount of calcium you need depends on several different factors — your age, sex and lifestyle. People who eat foods rich in Vitamin D can increase absorption with use, while heavy drinkers may have more trouble meeting their daily requirements.
Here’s a quick look at how much calcium you should be getting each day:
• Up to 6 months: 200 mg per day
• 6-12 months: 260 mg per day3
• Toddlers between 1 and 3: 700 mg
• Kids from 4 to 8: 1,000 mg
• Kids from 9 to 18: 1,300 mg
• Men and women 19 to 50: 1,000 mg
• Men 51 to 70: 1,000 mg per day
• Women over 50: 1,200 mg per day
• Men over 70: 1,200 mg per day
Doctors also recommend spacing out your calcium intake throughout the day, and not exceeding the recommended amounts by too much. Yes, there’s such thing as too much calcium — everything in moderation, right? For example, both adult men and women shouldn’t exceed 2,000 mg per day, as too much calcium may lead to kidney stones, upset stomach or other problems.
Try eating small amounts of calcium throughout the day, or take a supplement. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D and calcium work together to build healthy bones.
You can get your daily D requirements by getting some sun, taking a Vitamin D supplement or by eating foods like salmon and tuna. Vitamin D is a common additive in orange juice, non-dairy milks and cereals.
If you have certain conditions, you may be at greater risk of developing a Vitamin D deficiency. Here’s a quick look at your risk factors:
- Not spending enough time outside — this includes people who live in areas with little sunlight, those in nursing homes or others who can’t get out much.
- Celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease make it difficult for the body to absorb the appropriate amount of nutrients. People with these illnesses may not be getting enough Vitamin D.
- People who are very overweight.
- Those taking certain medications that interfere with Vitamin D absorption, such as anti-seizure medication.
Benefits of Avoiding Dairy
If calcium is so essential for staying healthy, what’s the point of giving up dairy?
Well, for starters, most people lack the enzyme needed to properly digest dairy. Pair that with ethical vegetarians, people trying to lose weight, vegans and those subject to cruel food allergies, and there are tons of people out there in need of alternative sources of calcium.
Giving up dairy is a personal decision, and one fraught with misinformation coming from big dairy and vegan bloggers alike. That said, many people report feeling less bloated or notice a clear, “glowing” complexion after just a few weeks of following a dairy-free diet.
Secret Dairy Sources — What Foods Are High in Calcium Besides Dairy?
After you’ve made the decision to give up dairy, the first step in changing your diet is figuring out where your nutrients are coming from. Below, we’ll lay out some great sources of calcium — from the veggie to the non-vegan. Here’s a quick look at some lesser-known calcium powerhouses.
Bone broth, a food trend du jour, is an Instagram favorite for a reason. Although not vegan, bone broth is totally non-dairy and loaded with a variety of minerals — including calcium. In addition to boosting your own bones, bone broth is rich in amino acids — which work together to improve digestion and wound healing and keep the nervous system running smoothly.
The best part? You can make the broth yourself with leftover beef, fish or chicken bones — stretching your food budget a bit further. Here’s how to make it at home:
- In a large crockpot, add bones of your choice.
- Fill the pot with filtered water.
- Add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.
- Turn crockpot to low and let the bones do their work for a minimum of six to eight hours. If you’ve got time, longer is always better.
- Remove from heat and serve, or refrigerate and store in an airtight container for later use.
Greens, Greens, Greens
Greens across the board are excellent sources of calcium, though there’s some variation. Collard greens, kale, turnip greens and bok choy contain high concentrations of easily absorbed calcium. A cup of collard greens, for example, provides a whopping 35 percent of your daily value. Kale, on the other hand, offers 149 mg of calcium per cup, but is readily absorbable and contains a number of flavonoids and vitamins, too.
Spinach and kelp contain 55 and 136 mg per cup, respectively, but the body doesn’t absorb them as quickly as the aforementioned veggies. However, paired with a hit of Vitamin D, these guys offer some serious health benefits — kelp contains trace minerals, potassium and iodine, while spinach boasts vitamins A, C and K.
Broccoli is one of the most versatile veggies to work into your next meal. Their absorbent tree tops take on any flavor you wish, making them an excellent gateway vegetable for the picky eater.
A cup of chopped broccoli contains about 43 mg of calcium, plus it comes with a healthy wallop of compounds known for their ability to reduce cancer — eat your broccoli! There’s really no excuse not to.
Soy isn’t just an easy substitute for milk because it’s so versatile — it’s also super-rich in calcium. On average, one cup of soybeans contains 175 mg of calcium. So stock up on tofu, swap your chip habit out for a bite of edamame and throw some soy into any veggie dish for an extra dose of calcium and protein — a key sticking point for anyone quick to criticize the plant-based diet.
It’s worth mentioning that soybeans are genetically modified more often than not, so it’s a good idea to go organic when you buy soy products for maximum nutrition.
Canned Salmon and Sardines
OK, canned fish isn’t as appealing as a beautifully cooked, fresh piece of salmon. However, don’t overlook the canned stuff — it boasts the most calcium-filled bang for your buck. Taking a cue from the bone broth listed above, the bones included in canned fish hold the secret.
Canned salmon brings omega 3s, along with about 230 mg of calcium per serving, while sardines offer 320 mg per six to eight tiny fish. Sardines also provide Vitamin D — making them an even better way to keep your own bones in tip-top shape.
Sesame seeds pack one of the biggest calcium punches in a miniature package. A single tablespoon of sesame seeds contains 88 mg of calcium — sesame seeds are super-easy to incorporate into your diet, too. Add some to your avocado toast or throw a healthy portion into your next stir-fry. Or make your own tahini sauce, which you can use to make homemade hummus, or as the base of a salad dressing.
Here’s a quick and easy tahini recipe you can whip up in a matter of minutes:
- 1 cup of sesame seeds
- Olive oil — 3 tablespoons, to start — more, if desired
- Add sesame seeds to a large saucepan or skillet and turn burner to high. Stir the seeds until they begin to turn a light golden brown and remove from heat. Sesame seeds burn quite easily, so keep a close eye on them.
- Let seeds cool off for about five minutes before placing in the base of a standing mixer.
- Add olive oil and mix on high until seeds turn into a paste. Keep adding olive oil until the mixture reaches desired consistency.
- Store the paste in the refrigerator in an airtight jar or container.
People usually recommend eating nuts due to their protein content or their ability to stave off midday hunger pains that strike during the afternoon slump. But almonds also rock as a source of calcium. A cup contains about 243 mg of calcium, which has these tasty nuts competing on the same level as the most calcium-rich greens in the game.
Beans and Lentils
Beans tend to be the default protein for uninspired vegans and vegetarians. But they’re underrated as nutritional powerhouses. Beans and lentils alike boast an abundance of micronutrients, magnesium, iron, folate and potassium. Oh yeah, and many contain a decent amount of calcium.
Winged beans are your best calcium source from the legume family — they’ve got a whopping 244 mg of calcium per one-cup serving.
If you can’t find winged beans, which aren’t the most common bean of the bunch, good old white beans also pack a bone-friendly boost — a cup offers about 13 percent of your daily calcium value. Most other types of beans and lentils contain about 5 percent of the recommended daily value — not the most significant source, but certainly worth adding to a pot of soup rich in collard greens or bok choy.
Beans also work to lower “bad” cholesterol and reduce the risk of diabetes.
Improve Your Calcium Uptake
Finally, calcium isn’t the end-all, be-all of the mineral nutrients. In fact, calcium needs other nutrients to be maximally effective. We’ve already mentioned the importance of Vitamin D above, but here are some other items that help calcium achieve its highest potential.
Phosphorus: Phosphorus and calcium work together to strengthen bones and teeth, as well as stave off conditions like hypercalcemia, osteoporosis and more. While phosphorus is in meat and dairy products, it’s also present in some grains, greens and other vegetables. We’ll put it this way — phosphorus is easy to come by. Additionally, Vitamin D improves both phosphorus and calcium absorption — promoting kidney and intestinal health.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral used to improve bone health, as well as improve energy levels, temperature regulation and nerve cell transmission. As we age, it may be harder to maintain healthy levels of magnesium. Taking calcium/magnesium supplements can help users maintain an optimal balance.
Vitamin K: Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting and bone health — in fact, Vitamin K may be just as vital to healthy bones and teeth as calcium. Like calcium, you can find Vitamin K in kale, spinach, collard greens, bok choy and more.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is primarily known for its major role in immune system health — fighting off things like the common cold. But the healing vitamin is also useful in stimulating collagen production. Collagen is the main protein found in bones, and our body stops making this protein naturally as we age. You can find Vitamin C in oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits, as well as tomatoes, kale, broccoli and bell peppers.
Vitamin A: The body relies on Vitamin A to maintain teeth, bones and immune system function. Vitamin A can be found in a variety of greens, carrots, sweet potatoes and organ meat.
And of course, a lack of Vitamin A may cause vision problems — meaning you should load up on carrots whenever you get the chance. However, too much Vitamin A may damage the bones, leading to an increase in breaks and fractures — making it all the more important to strike the proper balance among calcium, Vitamin A and other minerals like magnesium and phosphorus.
Probiotics: Probiotics are the so-called good bacteria that live inside the body. They help the body absorb incoming nutrients and improve overall digestion. Probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as digestive supplements, help the body get the most out of calcium rich foods. Additionally, probiotics can optimize Vitamin D levels with use, helping the body use calcium more efficiently.
Mediterranean Diet — Order Yalla Medi
At Yalla Medi, we specialize in special diets. We know how hard it is to eat out while keeping dairy out of the picture, following a gluten-free regimen or staying vegan when social occasions arise.
The Mediterranean is the source of many great options for vegans and non-dairy folk who want plenty of flavor and texture — one of the hardest things about giving up dairy. Whether you’re looking for something fresh, healthy and already made for dinner, or the perfect catered spread for your next event, check out our menu to see what we’ve got cooking.