If You Don’t Eat Dairy Are You Getting Enough Calcium in Your Diet? Non-Dairy Calcium Sources

When my doctor of Chinese medicine first took me off dairy, the only thing I thought about was not having the ability to eat cheese or to put sour cream on a potato or to eat pizza, macaroni and cheese, lasagna or ice cream.  It didn't occur to me that I might be setting myself up for a calcium or vitamin D deficiency until my best friend first expressed her concern over the issue.  Although I suspected that her concern arose from the fact that I would no longer be able to eat her signature dish (she makes a mean lasagna), it got me thinking.  How was I going to get enough calcium and vitamin D if I no longer ate dairy?

Calcium is essential for many functions of the body, including regulating the heartbeat, conducting nerve impulses, stimulating hormone secretions, clotting blood and building and maintaining healthy bones.  According to the National Institutes of Health, an adult aged 18-50 needs 1000 mg of calcium per day. Those over 50 years of age need 1200 mg of calcium per day.

Make no mistake about it, low-fat dairy foods are some of the best natural sources of calcium.  But did you know that a cup of cooked frozen collard greens contains more calcium than a cup of milk? According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one cup of cooked collard greens has 357 milligrams of calcium whereas a cup of 1% milk has 305 milligrams and a cup of skim milk has 299 milligrams.

Did you know that two tablespoons of blackstrap molasses will provide you with 400 milligrams of calcium, which is 40% of your recommended calcium daily intake? Other good nondairy natural sources of calcium include, but are not limited to, canned sardines (325 mg per 3 oz.), frozen turnip greens (249 mg per cooked cup), black-eyed peas, (211 mg per cup), canned white beans 191 mg per cup), canned pink salmon (181 mg per 3 oz.), and bok choy (158 mg per cooked cup). Generally, most cooked dark leafy greens contains a good amount of calcium and the frozen varieties contain higher amounts than the fresh – probably because they are flash frozen at the height of their nutrition. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule.  While cooked spinach, for example, contains high amounts of calcium, the calcium in spinach  is not well absorbed by the body because spinach contains oxalic acid which binds with the calcium and prevents its absorption.  Oxalic acid is also present in rhubarb, chard and beet greens.  As a result, they are not considered to be good sources of calcium. 

There are a number of calcium-fortified non-dairy soy, rice, almond and other milks in the market that are made by companies like Silk, Blue Diamond and Rice Dreams, that contain just as much calcium as dairy milk (300 mg per cup). Moreover, there are a number of other nondairy calcium-fortified foods available such as fortified orange juice (one cup = 300 mg), fortified nondairy yogurt, fortified cereals, fortified english muffins, meal supplement bars, etc. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, General Mills Total cereals (Total Corn Flakes, Whole Grain Total and Total Raisin Bran) contain 1000 mg of calcium per cup which is 100% of an adult's recommended daily intake.

Some people believe that the body doesn't absorb the calcium found in fortified foods as well as it does the calcium found in natural sources; however, the body's ability to absorb calcium depends on a number of factors.  For example, the presence of phosphate can inhibit calcium absorption.  As a result, nondairy milk fortified with tricalcium phospate has a 25% less absorption efficiency compared to dairy milk.  If the fortification is done with tricalcium carbonate, however, then this disadvantage in calcium absorption no longer exists. 

Although food is the best source of calcium, most Americans don't get enough of it from food sources and most multivitamins don't offer enough to make a difference.  Calcium supplements can help fill the gap to ensure you are able to meet your daily requirement. 

Are you getting enough calcium in your diet?  If you can eat dairy, then all you need is three servings of low-fat dairy a day to meet your needs.  If you don't tolerate dairy well or are allergic, then you will have to make sure to add more dark leafy greens, beans, canned fish and calcium fortified foods to your diet.  In either event, taking a calcium supplement will help to ensure you meet your daily requirements.

I hope you find this post helpful.   Let me know either way.


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