Calcium without the Cow: Non-Dairy Foods High in Calcium

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Calcium plays a critical role in maintaining our health, particularly in supporting strong bones. But what if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy dairy products, can’t tolerate them, or simply chooses to avoid them? The good news is that dairy isn’t the only path to ensuring adequate calcium intake. Whether it’s due to lactose intolerance, personal taste, or a lifestyle choice, there’s a whole world of calcium-rich foods out there waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Benefits of Calcium

Calcium is a mineral that’s crucial for many of our body’s functions. Think of it as the building block for our bones and teeth, giving them strength and structure. But its role doesn’t stop there.

Calcium is also vital for our heart, muscles, and nerves to function properly. It helps our blood to clot and plays a role in regulating blood pressure.

From our early years to our golden years, calcium is a key player in maintaining our overall health and well-being. This is why ensuring adequate calcium intake is important at all stages of life.

How much calcium do you need?

Determining the right amount of calcium you need can vary based on age, gender, and life stage.

The recommendations are:

Women aged 19-50 need 1,000 mg of calcium daily

Women over 50 need 1,200 mg daily

 It’s crucial to meet these requirements to maintain bone density and support overall health. Remember, our bodies don’t produce calcium, so it’s vital to get enough from our diet, or supplements if necessary.

Why Calcium Matters During Menopause

Menopause marks a significant change in our bodies, particularly in how our bones are affected. This is mainly due to a decrease in estrogen production, which not only lowers calcium absorption but also leads to more calcium being lost through urine and removed from our bones.

On average, women may experience a loss of about 1% in bone mineral density each year after menopause. Over time, this gradual loss can lead to bones becoming less dense and more fragile. In fact, about 30% of postmenopausal women in the United States and Europe are affected by osteoporosis, a condition where bones become weak and more prone to breaks.

Non-dairy Foods High in Calcium

These non-dairy sources of calcium generally provide 200-300 mg per serving:

  • Fish with bones (salmon, sardines) (2/3 cup)
  • Black beans, cooked (1 cup)
  • Bok choy or kale, cooked (1 cup)
  • Tofu, extra firm, in calcium sulphate brine (1 cup)
  • Fortified orange juice* (1 cup)
  • Fortified plant-based beverages*(soy milk, almond milk) (2/3 cup)

*Note: Always check the label as amounts can vary from brand to brand.

Aim for 2-3 servings per day of these calcium superstars.

Other non-dairy foods that are a bit lower in calcium can be eaten regularly to boost your overall calcium intake. These foods contain 100-200 mg of calcium:

  • Edamame pods, (2 cups)
  • Broccoli, cooked (1½ cup)
  • Kale, raw (½ cup)
  • Almonds (½ cup)
  • Dried figs (5 medium)
  • Almond butter (2 tbsp)
  • Sesame seeds, whole (2 tbsp)
  • Tahini (2 tbsp)
  • Soybean nuts, dry roasted(1/3 cup)

You can look up any food you are curious about here.

Easy Ways to add Non-dairy Calcium Rich Foods to your Diet

Breakfast option: Start your day with a bowl of cereal with a fortified plant-based milk.

Almond Butter Spread: Swap out your regular butter or peanut butter for almond butter on toast.

Sesame Seed Topping: Sprinkle sesame seeds on salads or stir-fries.

Salads and Smoothies: Add leafy greens to your salads and smoothies for a calcium boost.

Snacking Smart: Nuts and seeds make great snacks or can be added to yogurt and oatmeal.

Creative Cooking: Use beans and lentils in soups, stews, and salads.

Calcium Absorption: Plants vs Dairy Sources

Good News! The calcium found in fortified non-dairy drinks, non-dairy yogurts, and tofu is absorbed by our bodies just as efficiently as the calcium from cow’s milk. However, when we turn to other plant-based foods, certain naturally occurring components can impact how well calcium is absorbed.

Oxalates can bind to calcium, which may slightly decrease its absorption. However, this doesn’t mean foods high in oxalates should be avoided. These foods, including spinach, Swiss chard and beet greens, offer a plethora of health benefits that far outweigh the potential reduction in calcium absorption.

To balance oxalate intake, you might consider incorporating more low-oxalate foods like broccoli, bok choy, kale, napa cabbage, watercress, mustard greens, and turnip greens into your diet.

Similarly, the presence of phytates in beans and nuts reduces their calcium absorption. But don’t let that deter you from enjoying these foods! Beans and nuts still provide a significant amount of calcium, along with other vital nutrients, making them valuable additions to a balanced diet.

Calcium supplements

Getting calcium from food rather than supplements is generally preferred for several reasons:

Better Absorption: Our bodies tend to absorb calcium more effectively from food sources. When calcium is consumed as part of a whole food, it’s often accompanied by other beneficial nutrients that aid in its absorption.

Reduced Risk Excessive Intake: It’s easier to avoid excessive intake of calcium when consuming it through food. Overconsumption of calcium, particularly through supplements, can lead to health issues like constipation and kidney stones and may even interfere with the absorption of other minerals.

Additional Nutrients: Foods high in calcium also provide a host of other essential nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, contributing to overall health beyond just bone strength.

If your diet falls short in providing enough calcium, supplements can be a helpful addition. However, choosing the right supplement and taking it correctly is key to maximizing its effectiveness.

Types of Calcium Supplements

Calcium Carbonate: A popular choice due to its higher calcium content and affordability. It’s best absorbed when taken with food, as stomach acid aids in its absorption. Tums are an easy and cheap form of calcium carbonate.

Calcium Citrate: This form is easily absorbed and does not require food for effective absorption, making it a great option for those with digestive issues or on acid-reducing medications.

Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate are available but have lower calcium content, requiring more frequent doses.

Since your body absorbs calcium best in smaller amounts (up to 500 mg at a time), it’s advisable to spread your dosage throughout the day if you’re taking a higher dose.

Ensuring adequate vitamin D intake is crucial for calcium absorption. Look for supplements that include vitamin D or make sure you get enough from your diet or sun exposure.

Lifestyle Habits That Affect Calcium Levels

Reducing Salt Intake: A diet high in salt can lead to an increase in calcium loss through urine, negatively impacting bone density. To maintain healthy calcium levels, it’s advisable to limit consumption of processed foods, which are often high in sodium.

Moderating Caffeine Consumption: Excessive caffeine intake can decrease the amount of calcium stored in our bodies. It’s recommended to keep coffee consumption to about two cups (480 mL) daily. Be mindful of other caffeine sources like colas and energy drinks; tea is a lower-caffeine alternative.

Avoiding Smoking and Limiting Alcohol: Smoking and chronic alcohol consumption can both exacerbate bone loss. Steering clear of smoking and moderating alcohol intake can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and support healthier bones.

Check out this article on the impact of alcohol on menopause.

Incorporating a variety of non-dairy sources of calcium into your diet is not only feasible but can also be a delightful and nutritious adventure. From leafy greens and tofu to black beans and sardines, the options are abundant and versatile. Embracing these alternatives can help ensure adequate calcium intake, supporting strong bones and overall health, especially during life stages like menopause.

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Sandra Turnbull

Sandra has 30+ years experience as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Executive Coach, and is passionately committed to sharing evidence-based information while helping women thrive during the monumental transition that is menopause.

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Picture of Sandra Turnbull
Sandra Turnbull

Sandra brings over three decades of expertise both as a Registered Dietitian and a Be Body Positive facilitator. As a fellow midlife adventurer herself, she is committed to providing evidence-based guidance and compassionate support to women navigating the pivotal journey of menopause. For her it’s about nurturing bodies and minds with kindness and understanding, knowing its not just about what is on your plate; it’s also about how you feel in your skin.

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